A Secret in Trouble, The Spice of Life and What the Jug Might Say At Last

     Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave— that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing. 

     These are some of my favorite words from a favorite novel: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. I find them in my car and in my pockets and in broken pieces throughout old journals. I love that idea of a prevenient courage, a courage waiting for me, already there, ahead of me. It works on me— maybe like a placebo, but effectual all the same.

     On Friday mornings I stand outside our abortion mill and last week a lady pulled up beside me and rolled down her window. I told her why I was there and asked if I could help her. I’m no street evangelist, and I’m sure there are many ways things can happen, but in the two years I have stood in that place, I have come to recognize the prevenient grace in a face. She looked at me honest. She said I already have a baby. I could see that baby sleeping in a carseat. You already have two babies, I said. We talked for a long time, and in the end I asked her what she needed from me. I told her all the things we could do. But she didn’t need anything. This is normal. What she asked God for was a sign, and He gave it. It was waiting on her. What I asked God for was courage, and maybe she did too, because He had it waiting for us there on the street— in the face of one another, we both found courage— me to stay in the hard place and her to leave it. 

     Precious things have been put into our hands, the words go, and to do nothing with them is to do great harm. I guess we all have to reckon with this in different ways, according to what we’ve been given. Sometimes what I have in my hands seems too ordinary to write about, too light and trite, and perhaps uninteresting. But if you thought that, you wouldn’t be here, would you?  So here’s a wee bit from the writing-life:

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     I have a drawer in my desk and in the drawer there is a box and in the box there are treasures. There is a polished rock and an acorn cap, a feather, a buckeye, a chestnut, an arrowhead, wax stubs, rubber worms and a box of matches. I have found that when nothing else can satisfy a kid, this box can. My desk itself, with all its cubbies and bird-nests, is like magic, but the box in the drawer is the panacea for all nap deprived-children glittering in its virgin polythene. 

     But normally I have girls. Sally and Adah will look over this box for a long time, but Otey is a boy. Otey is all boy. And before I knew it, Otey had struck a match. 

      Before a whole room of people that little kid in my lap, under my care, struck a match. I supervised the careless handling of the cardinal rules of wisdom: Do not take candy from strangers. Do not run with scissors. Do not stand in a swivel chair. And above all, do not play with matches. I utterly failed the kid. 

     There was a great howling. The good Mama was brought forth, and she comforted him and she comforted me. We shed great tears, produced Snoopy bandaids and tried everything we could to quiet him. But no. That was it. He had gone too long without sleep, and nothing would do but go home right this very minute. It is essential, in parenting, to delay right this very minute just long enough for it to look like your idea. It is a duty of the hostess, especially if she is to blame, to help in this cause. So I looked around in my shame and landed on a deer call, the kind you blow. This one has four holes and every one makes a different sound.

     Which brings me to why I’m sharing this with you, dear reader. It may be that you, too, will fail someone as I did that night. It may be that you’ve said everything you possibly can and tried all the good and clever things to no avail. When that moment comes, take a deep breath and blow through every one of those holes in that deer call, then pass it around for everyone to try. It’s only $29.99 at Cabela’s, and you won’t regret it.IMG_0192


 

Every Wednesday morning I take my grandmother to Kroger. Every time she buys the same donut, cookies, 1% milk, bottled water and Cheetos. Every time she smells— just smells— the cantaloupes. Every time she asks the employee stocking the shelf why they don’t have Del Monte pear halves. Every time he says he doesn’t like pears. Every time I buy something unexpected, like bunches of tulips or jackfruit or exotic beer, as a gentle shock to her system and to keep myself from slipping into madness.

     Every Monday I cook for a widower and his bachelor son. Today, while the first was reading, the second sat at the kitchen table and told me all the things he didn’t like to eat and they were legion, and they were, very matter of factly, just about everything I had cooked lately.

     The older man walked into the room then, and I, wanting an ally asked him boldly what he thought about my cooking, and he said: Do you know Dot Phillips? I did know Dot Phillips. She’s a beautiful old lady and she has a wild look in her eyes and sometimes she disappears from church and the world entirely, causing everyone considerable trouble.

     “Well Dot Phillips,” he said, “Used to invite folks for dinner quite a lot and she would always cook something unusual, something she’d never tried before, or something she didn’t even have a recipe for.” He cleared his throat. “I always told Alice: Alice, somebody needs to tell Dot that men just like meat and potatoes.” He wiped his nose with a handkerchief and turned to leave. “And she cut her onions too big.”

     Reader, I also cut my onions too big. The bachelor-son laughed at my face and went into his room to listen to Rush Limbaugh, who is undeniably invariable. But today I was happy, and you could have stolen my lunch money. I washed the sink full of pots and almost burnt the cookies daydreaming about Dot Phillips, coming into the Baptist church social, long AWOL, little arms full of tulips, jackfruit and exotic beer.

      Last year I learned some things, and maybe this year I’ll learn that I am no enchanted Lifter of Ruts, and men just like meat and potatoes. Or maybe this is the year Dot Phillips and I will finally shock their systems into joie de vivre. Stay tuned! 

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    I am a man who has hoped, in time, that his life, when poured out at the end would say, “Good-good-good-good-good!” like a gallon jug of the prime local spirit. 

     I’ve read Jayber Crow so many times now that when these words came to me in the night I got up and found them easily in the full moon shining on my desk. I have hoped for the same thing. Life is nothing but decisions, I heard an old man say and I have had good reason lately to consider mine carefully and like never before. 

   In the face of wonderful things, I have found myself disbelieving the kindness of God, just waiting for the yeah but, the thread to snap and the sword to fall, because I do not deserve a happier ending than anyone else. Concerning marriage, especially, there seems to always be an ominous dark cloud in the silver lining. Everyone talks about the cross in marriage, the sacrifice, the laying it down, the letting it roll. A Catholic friend, concerning a marital dispute, said she took her will in the mundane matter and offered it up for souls, which is what I plan to do with mine, for it sounds altogether more worthwhile and valiant, don’t you think? Never mind the bad smell that would come to those poor (lost?) souls from the burning sacrifice of my opinion. 

    But I know all they’re saying is true. I know it’s hard, truly, I do. I grew up in this world, after all, where even the idylls of the screen are shattered with broken promises. I grew up listening to country music, full of fires gone out. I was told I could be anything I wanted and I invented wild dreams to satisfy them, but all I wanted, really, was to be happy. I grew up and learned, as we all do, that my future was limited and that happiness would depend largely, as C.S. Lewis said, on the character of those I live with, and that I cannot alter their characters. I grew up watching the rise and fall of many couples. I grew up in a normal family. And you know what? I grew up ready to take it on. 

   We’re like fighters studying the undefeated opponent, in all the sad mess of broken ribs and cut eyes and tap outs, and still climbing into the ring. You know that you are no better than anyone else. You know it may devastate you. But there is some deep down dauntless whisper inside that says but maybe not. Maybe not me, maybe not him, maybe not this time and this is what picks up and moves—of all things—your body. Your words, your touch and your time.

   For our fears cannot out-wrangle our hope. We cannot help but think that if our futures are limited, and our happiness is limited, so also is our trouble. If a thing like marriage can go to hell, perhaps it could go the other way.

     In the back of an old journal I have written this quote from another Wendell Berry novel. It’s also about the character of the bachelor, Jayber Crow, and it says:  Jayber always finds himself taking up the defensive of marriage. Not so much the defense of any particular marriage…. But of marriage itself, of what has come to be, for him, a kind of last ditch holy of holies: the possibility that two people might care for each other and know each other better than enemies, and better than strangers happening to be alive at the same time in the same town; and that, with a man and a woman, this craving and knowing might be made by intention, and in the consciousness of all it is, and of all it might be, and of all that threatens it. At these times it seems to Jayber that of all men in Port William, he’s the most married- not in marriage, but to this ideal of marriage. He is bound in this way, as he is bound, beyond friendships and his friends, to an ideal of friendship.

    And so I find myself taking up the defense of this institution, which for all it’s many deaths still survives and will live forever. In the meantime, it’s a comfort to know my fear is not infallible, sure or unfailing. It’s not the way, the truth or the life. But it is something I have to live with. If I could offer it up for souls, I would, but surely they would give it back.

   My grandmothers have forgotten more about marriage than I know today. I’m afraid of all I don’t know, and I’m afraid of never finding out. I’m afraid of not being good enough and of not having the good I long for. I’m afraid of all that threatens what is good. But here’s what I know: I know that God made marriage. I know I’m a sinner, and if there is something good inside of me, He poured it in. I know that I hate to hurt just as much as I hate to be hurt and so I can love while trusting myself to be loved. That’s a lot to live on, but there is more.

   I know my life, when poured out, will say, “Good-good-good-good-good!” but it won’t, in the end, be my own good, or even the good I have known, but the burning-sweet goodness of the Lord. 

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January Poem

When Daddy worked shifts
And I couldn’t sleep
I would sneak into her room
And wait beside the bed.
The floor was cold on my feet.
Baby, she said, come here
And I’d climb into the sheets
And ask her what to dream.
She would say
Red roses and yellow balloons.
I was a turner and a kicker
And a talker and a spinner
But when Mama held me
I was still.

Sometimes now the steps
Will creak and she will say
I cannot sleep
So I roll over to the edge
To squeeze us in the little bed
And she climbs under the sheets
Feet cold from the floor in my room.
She’s a watcher and a schemer
And a talker and a dreamer
But when I hold her
She is still
And the stars are like yellow balloons.

For the Time Being

I hope you have adventures, she said, not kindly but with an edge, as if to say: I hope you do something better with your life than this. The dying man in the bed looked long at me and shook his head. Don’t leave me alone, he said, when she was gone.

Last month my friend Sarah sent me the article On Living, by Alan Noble. I haven’t shared other writings here before as this place is a test plot for my own words, and I know if you are kind and slow enough to read here you are a Reader and surely reading elsewhere already. This piece, though. Please read it. I have had friends in life, old and young, who have come to a time when their existence is all they have to give, and very seldom do they want to go on giving day by day. But it is true what he says: You need to know that your being in the world is a witness. 

Recently a man explained to me patiently that abortion is a better option than food stamps and foster care, because those kids won’t grow up to be anything worthwhile anyway. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that’s a lie, but I don’t mind saying it again. One of my best friends was a baby like this. She grew up homeless and addicted to every hurtful thing. When she wasn’t stealing, she was a burden on the system. She has homemade tattoos, ugly scars, shot-out veins and decades of stories you wouldn’t want to hear too late at night, but even in the gutters, with every fast beat of her heart, every knife fight and cold night, her life testified of God’s grace. Now as a wife and mother, even on her best days, she’ll tell you that’s what it’s still about. 

I often go hunting and what is required is a willingness to be still and quiet and alone for many hours. You become like the sycamore and the cattails. You learn where the wood duck sleeps and how many of their young survived. You know the trail of the beetle across the water, the swirl of the fish and the dip of the kingfisher. You have seen the fog come running, like a white ghost whistled for. You are sometimes cold and lost and you are always unnecessary. This is in fact, the very key. You are nothing in the world but a creature capable of being what you were made for: a seer, a waiter, a listener, a little keeper of the peace and little piece of the kept. Your being in this world is a witness. As the White-throated Sparrow sings O Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody, grace testifies through you simply in the hearing of a song that says there is, above all, a loving God. 

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The Hard Fought For Four-hundred

Because three was wimpy and five was oppressive, here are three four-hundreds, for you:

Annie Dillard said she did not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. I hold it’s hand, she said, and hope it will get better. These days this is my every sentence. I have come here to the dock on the most beautiful October day, when I could be reading or swimming or fishing, to hold the hand of a desire as weary as the earth after September. I stare at the worn page and remember when it sparkled back at me. 

What should I expect? I asked the hospice nurse. 

What do you mean? she said, not wanting to answer a question I didn’t ask. She was a wise woman. 

I mean, will he, you know, will he? 

Honey, he should just stop breathing, she said.

She didn’t tell me how hard that would be and how it would be difficult to remember who I was before then. 

Writers block. This is normal. It happens. In labor pains, a woman cries check me!  Tell me how it’s going!  I need to know. But here I am crying  don’t check me! There has been no progress, I know it. All this pain and serving the work and I’ve been at 5 cm for months. I can’t stand for anyone to look over my shoulder and see what I haven’t accomplished. 

Leave me!  Don’t leave me!  Hold my hand, but look away. 

Have you ever known someone who knew you deeply, yet was perfectly content with you? Someone who didn’t try to get you to see things or fix things in yourself, not because they were indifferent, but because they were just truly happy and at rest in you? This is a rare thing, and rightly so. The wounds of a friend are sweet. Humility is the soil of all virtues. But I wonder if I was given this kind of love for a time so that I might be able to give it myself, like a seed that died in me. I’m sure the best fulfillment of this would be toward a person, but perhaps there will be enough there to give some to the page. 

I know you just spent an hour watching fish hit the surface of the water wrinkled in the breeze, waiting for 400 words to come so you can walk away, but honey, you’ll get better someday.

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Jasper Sheffield was one of my great grandfathers, and the best of them to my knowledge. He had a farm in Esto, Florida and he was a faithful man in ways the others were not. Yet he had two memorable faults. First, that he drank… while driving the school bus. The second, that he would come in late to church, sit in the very back, and leave early. Sheffield is my middle name, after him, and I also share with him concerning these failures, a great deal of mutual feeling and sympathy. 

I’ve always gone to church, come hell or high-water, in sickness and in health, and I always will, as long as we both shall live. Yet not a Sunday goes by when I do not feel that Sheffield urge to slip in and out the back, to find an ox in the ditch somewhere, something to do, but I’ve come to see that putting on a dress and showing up for the long service is my work of mercy, to my family and community. It is not some open and peaceful thing I will feel, like floating down the river, but some muddy and hard thing I must do, like running fence in a bottom, and when I look at it that way, I think I can do this. Maybe that’s the way Jasper Sheffield thought of it too, and maybe I can sit and stand and kneel through the hours because he sat through the minutes when he wasn’t comfortable and kept coming back to try again. 

His daughter sits beside me. She is ninety years old. She rustles her papers and slams the hymnbook and sighs long and loud starting mid-sermon. She loves the liturgy because she knows what’s coming and follows along by watching when everyone else turns the page. She catches my eye as I look out the window and directs me to our place. She likes to sit thigh to thigh and rests her head on my shoulder. Down the line is her son, my father. She says he’s good looking, and he is, but the best thing about him is that he is there. From beginning to end, he is right there. He has filled up the absence of her youth and her old age has known new comforts.

But don’t ask any of us to drive the school bus. 


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One of the lake’s best stories is about a bank fisherman who caught a man. He was sitting on the shore with his can of King Cobra malt liquor and cup of worms when he got a hit on his line that was something serious. All he wanted was a big bream or flathead cat. He was just looking for some fun. Just something to take home so they couldn’t say he was wasting his time, yet he found himself wrestling with a rod bent double, praising and swearing, as a man came up through the water. A man alive. 

When I was little I would take turns imagining I was the fisherman and the diver. I would be weaving through the wreck of the biplane at the bottom of the lake, when a force would take hold. I would try to shake it loose. I would fight and then finally surrender, practicing this routine on the bottom of my aunt’s pool when all the other kids were playing Marco Polo. When all the kids grew up and dated and got married, I was still distracted. I have now resurfaced as a woman in the world to find that life is, after all, much like bank fishing with King Cobra and exploring the wreck under the surface of things. You come with ideas and expectations, but mostly you come unprepared. 

If you are wise you will know, as the wisest man said, that there is nothing new under the sun. Tomorrow is like to be as today. Yet wiser still, you learn that the truth is stranger than fairy tales and you are always on some end of a hook. You learn that God is good and creative and wants you to be sure of this, so he makes the line scream and jerks you back. He makes you both afraid of life and eager to live it. Glad to see the sun and gladder still to sleep. 

The diver and the fisherman had been happy the way they were, but not entirely, for no one wholly satisfied is in pursuit, even of a fish. They went after lesser things and got caught in a story worth the telling. Strangers tied together. They put on the flesh of invisible things.

So what happened next? Nobody knows. This was when the bystanders respectfully looked away, to let them sort it out.

 

 

The Old Man’s Wife

     There once was a little boy whose father was busy and whose mother was ill, and so he was sent to live with his grandparents. The first Sunday they found him sitting at the top of the steps, looking out the window there.

     “It’s time to get dressed for church, Mali,” they said. 

     “No.” 

     “Well yes. Yes, Mali, that’s what we do.”

     Pointing out the window, he said, “But this is not my world.”

     The old man told me this story in Dairy Queen. He pulled it from his collection of funnies, of kids say the darnedest things, and yet before the last words were out, they quarried him deep, as if it wasn’t his familiar story. His wife had just died. Perhaps it had taken every bit of courage he had to walk out his door that morning. Perhaps he had laid long in bed and remembered all the days he had known, and considered all the strange new things he would face alone, and felt at a loss to say just what he was thinking about it all, until right then. 

     He looked down. Perhaps his cold hands reminded him that if it wasn’t his world, at least it was his butterfinger blizzard. He resurfaced triumphantly as men do, just as he did after his first dive as a boy, when he went down much deeper than he imagined and desperately pulling his weight toward the light, he rose with a swoop of the head that peaked his hair and a look that crowed. In the same way, the old man looked up brave through his watery eyes and began another story that was pure comedy, about a different little boy who gathered all the car keys at the family reunion and threw them into the muddy lake. 

     They say comedy equals tragedy plus time, but I don’t know. Maybe I just need more time, but there is only so much we have, even all put together. I have also seen tragedy equal comedy plus time, and I have seen time utterly fail them both. I haven’t even lived very long. There might be more these things can do.

     Years ago, a friend sent me a letter and asked me not to share it. I read it just once, quickly, and then went out into the cold with a box of matches. I lit it in my hand and dropped the last little fiery piece on the stone path, burning myself a little. It was a windy day and the ashes swirled and scattered. I cannot remember now exactly what it said.

    In spending time with elderly people, I have heard many stories that were not mine to tell. They say for a writer all the world is your raw material, but this isn’t true, not really. Not for me. This is like the man who was fined for spreading four o’clock seeds on the highway. It wasn’t his garden. I’ve known all along that I would need to live well to write well, but I didn’t realize that writing well would be such a minor side effect of living well, and how many countless letters would need to be burned up and blown away. 

     I have written mostly to cheat death. I have examined this motive, considered my ways and continued on, like a sinner. I excuse myself because it is not my death of which I speak, but the reader will see this is not exactly true. I have written what I could not let go of. I realize my stories are as common as the ones that fill your own days, maybe more so. You do not come here expecting to be wildly entertained. You enter only as you would a neighbor’s house, understanding that you will find it much like your own. And yet, you never know.

    He gets the key from under the post-cap. He opens the familiar door. There are crumbs and coupons on the kitchen table. There is a puddle of pears on the counter. There are seven blinking messages, a mystery novel face down on the desk and half a cobbler in the refrigerator. Her delicates are in the wash. A wadded up kleenex is in her rocker. Sixty-six years they were married. He climbs the stairs and looks out the window. It’s time for the six o’clock news. But this is not his world. 

He Said That It Was Finished

March 2018

At eighty-five, Mrs. Alice is still a straight, sharp woman who knows her own mind and will gladly give you a piece of it.

“I’m not particular,” she said. “It’s just that there’s a right way for doing things.”

She was a missionary doctor and itinerant preacher’s wife to the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria, and I was beginning to think she might have written his sermons. Not being sure where I stood with the Lord (having only known me a few hours) she found occasion to preach and it was stirring. Mrs. Alice does not hide anything under a bushel. We walked slowly through the beautiful house, richly furnished from the accumulation of a fascinating life.

“This is the only pagan trinket we kept,” she said, handing me a bronze band from Egypt, used by royal daughters to keep their arms narrow.  I slipped it over mine. “You know, we had a fire one night, Keith and me, and we gathered all the idols we’d bought and burned them.” Thirty years later, I could still see the light dancing in her eyes from the thrill of burning a false god.

She walked me through the house chores and then laid out her last sewing project, long untouched and we finished it, her words guiding my hands through the pinning and pressing. It was becoming obvious that there would be no shortage of things for us to do together every Monday. She had plenty of ideas stored up, and a heap of stories to tell. After a lunch of cucumber sandwiches, we sat down and she told me all about her medical problems, from arthritis twisting her hands, to heart arrhythmia, the only thing brazen enough to really threaten her plans. 

 “It almost killed me once, before I knew how to apprehend it. I was laying on a table in the hospital. The young doctor stood over me and said that if my heart stopped, he had a fancy machine called a converter that would restart it and save my life. I told him, I said: Listen, honey, I’m a good Baptist.  I’ve been converted, but I don’t mind being converted again.”  

We laughed together, but then she added in all seriousness, “I do hope he went home and thought about that.” Between Mrs. Alice and the doctor, I’m not sure who was more concerned about the other’s heart.


August 2019

I was coming home from a wedding up river, passing through Mt. Carmel, making plans to get lost one day on those old Huguenot roads, when I got the call to come say goodbye to Mrs. Alice. I hadn’t counted on saying goodbye to her anytime soon. The idea was for Mrs. Alice and I to learn each other well, so I could go to her when she was feeble, but the Lord outmaneuvered us all. Mrs. Alice didn’t get feeble. 

I crossed the river into Georgia, all knotted up inside. Sometimes that hospital feels like my nucleus. I was born there and keep going back, like a boomerang. Perhaps the force with which I leave sends me flying in, sooner or later.

There was a Nigerian man in the waiting room. I knew him from her stories: her son, she called him, though he first came into her house as Help, like me.

“I wore my best shirt for her,” he said, smiling. 

“Yes. I started wearing makeup, working for her.” I figured I needed all the help I could get.

Mrs. Alice was not a snob, but she had a keen compassion and penetrating eye. She would look you up and down and consider you. She would consider your intellect, your upbringing, your waistline, and your ideal spouse. She would consider your needs. But mostly she would consider your heart and tell you about hers, for she was convinced there was something in them just alike. 

They say it’s better to go quickly. I don’t know about that. They say we shouldn’t mourn a woman who lived almost a century. I can’t say that either. But what I know is that Mrs. Alice cannot be found on this earth anymore, because God has taken her, and before she was taken, she had this testimony: that she pleased him. 

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On Being Brave, Becoming a Slave, and the Economics of Honeysuckle

“When I was little, I used to wake up every morning and look outside the window to see if a horse was there.”

It was four in the morning, and Dad was sitting on my bed, which is in the sunroom off of the kitchen. He had three cups of coffee in him and was ready to go fishing. We have always had a lively relationship, so he enjoys catching me when I’m not a ball of fire, that is, when I am asleep. 

“You think you could use that in your writing?” 

“Sure, Dad.”

And true to my word, there it is. 

There has been a lot going on, so do not assume otherwise when I tell you the highlight of the season has been the hummingbird nest just outside my window. I would never have found it if it weren’t for the bird coming right up to my desk one day and then returning to rest on her nest, just like the robin on the wall of the secret garden. Then there was very little study done in the following weeks for me watching her through the telephoto lens of my camera, as you see.

It is marvelous that I have seen this, and equally marvelous that such things usually go unseen and are not a bit concerned about it. 

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My mama says, when she was little, she invested a lot of time in honeysuckle. I did as well, and the return was substantial. I would say to myself: No need to go in for lunch, I can just eat out here. Then I remember, in all honesty, feeling satisfied. When we grow up, we move on from investing in honeysuckle. It can no longer fill us, and we can’t help that. The return for our new ventures may be less rewarding and sweet, perhaps stolen from us or sullied, perhaps invisible or nonexistent altogether. We may spend years on something and look back to wonder what it even meant. 

Two friends, both artists, have confessed to me this week feeling frustrated and ready to quit, as if their talent was lodged with them useless, that they should just stop and invest in other things, but what they are really feeling, like Gilgamesh of old, is fear of death. I know this well. We see our insignificance now as we never did in the hours we stood beside the fence and harvested nectar with our tongues, oblivious of a ticking clock. But no matter how loved we may become, we cannot make ourselves immortal, and if God is merciful he will let us hit our heads against this time and again, yet we can live as children of God by being brave. Playing it safe is not Divine, Robert Farrar Capon writes in The Supper of the Lamb, a book about living out immortality, in the kitchen of all places.

No matter how much we are forced to lift our eyes from this fragile life, we cannot escape our love for the earth, because it was not meant to be escaped.

Thank you for investing your time here Reader, and I hope, somehow, it may be as honeysuckle. Below are two 300 word pieces of late for you. 


I studied to help my sister through her labors and now, with baby Ruby coming in September, I’m going through the process of becoming a DONA doula. A question I’ve received is, how can you help a woman through something you haven’t experienced? 

This is a good question, but I think it comes with an unhealthy assumption: not that we must resemble one another, but that we must be the same. The word doula means not mother, but slave. What’s necessary for a good slave is willingness to serve and skill in serving, eyes that see the needs, a mind that thinks ahead, knees that quickly bend. A slave and master do not compare, but correspond. It’s humble, sure, but it also requires boldness and initiative, as in my Lord has need of this donkey. A doula may have to stand up to the cranky night-shift nurse. She may have to remind the doctor of the patient’s wishes. She may have to ask the mother-in-law to leave the room. These things require education, tact and diplomacy. On the other end of the line, she may be holding a popsicle, wiping a sweaty brow and supporting a swaying, groaning body with a strength as supernatural as the event itself. And that’s just the thing: Even in the most lowly tasks of a doula, the event itself is cosmic, filling all things mundane to bursting with profound purpose. This is true for all of life, but especially when a life is delivered into the world: a human-being unique from every other in the history of the universe, resembling us, but certainly not the same. Weak, fragile, dependent, the lowest, yet honored above us all. The one everyone wants to see. The valley raised. The one we labored for.

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Three things are too high for me, four I cannot fathom. The notion of infinity, the span of eternity, the sacrifice of the Trinity and the grace given me. 

I was born on August 24th, the day Hurricane Andrew ravaged the east coast. There were twenty-six lives snuffed out that night, yet the labor and delivery floors were packed as the low barometric pressure sent women close to their time rushing through the rain to groan in overflowed hospital halls, blowing out imaginary candles that would not be dimmed. My sister wailed as the balloons were swept away. The fishing report that week read that, despite the lake wind advisory, Captain Dave’s wife reeled in a 7 pound 8 ounce baby girl. 

My testimony is that I can’t remember not knowing Jesus was the Christ. I was baptized as an infant, all beautiful in a white gown, and again as a kid, all sweaty in a t-shirt. When was I saved? At some point in-utero perhaps or before, and also every day since. Sometimes I worry: How much of who I am do I own myself? How much would I believe if it wasn’t for grace? The answer is nothing, none of it. If you’re a Christian, it’s also true of you. No matter what you had to leave home to learn, or search out to find, if you’ve known the friendship of God, it’s by grace through faith: a new birth like the old one in ability and acumen, that no one can say hey look at what I did. And life goes on that way, doesn’t it? Spun out of hell, washed clean and set down to live.

And so I have thought of another high thing, a fifth: the fist that gathers the wind.

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First Ride

IMG_0139She came to stay the morning with me. She was eleven years old, small, with tangled curly hair, dressed in overalls with a broken strap, legs tucked into rubber boots. She was the kind of shy that hurt to look at you straight, so we worked shoulder to shoulder, which is a good posture for friendship anyway. Our deal, made on her behalf by her brother, was that she would clean stalls in return for a horseback ride.

“She’s a good horse, but she’s cranky,” I said, as she dropped her head in the old way for me, as gentle as could be. “Well she’s pruny anyway,” I said, and ran a finger over her tight lips, which seemed to smooth out as I did. The girl smiled for the first time. She was thinking the mare was understanding me. All little girls think this, because it’s true. 

“They listen well,” I said. “So you can talk to her.” But she looked away. She was looking for a hole to run through.

I was sixteen when I got my saddle, my first real one, and one as real as they get. It was too heavy for me back then, and some winter days, it still is. It’s a Billy Cook, made in Sulphur, Oklahoma. Light brown, with a basket weave. When asked to list my property once, that saddle was the first thing that came to mind. 

“She may give you a hard time with the bridle,” I said, as the mare lowered her head again and opened her mouth, soft, for the bit. She was making a liar out of me. 

Most little girls come with fantasies about horses and I’ve found it’s good to reconstruct them quickly, before they get hurt. The mare usually helps by biting me on the shoulder, but this day, she looked ahead and stood still while I tightened the girth and gave my knee to the girl as a step. She learned stop, lateral flexion and back. Then she learned to walk and reign. In all this you can make yourself felt, if you are strong, but little ones must also make themselves heard. I said this generally, while looking out at the landscape. The suggestion was heard, not felt, certainly not taken to heart.

It took awhile, but not a sound was made from the rider. She made herself known all the way through the leather of that Billy Cook saddle, all the way down the reins and into the snaffle-bit of that bridle. Walk and stop and back and change leads and walk and stop and back and change leads and walk and stop and back. I did this myself for years, and I can tell you it’s important and I can tell you it’s enough to break your heart. It was already hurting the girl. I could see it in her eyes, because she let me. She looked straight at me for the first time, with it standing there between us, like a work of art, just waiting for someone with eyes to see.

“Would you like to go faster?” I asked. 

This really shouldn’t be, you know. You ought to let a girl sit on the hard slow track and suffer the death of her fantasies just a little while. The ring is for breaking the will. But what better place for hope and reality exceeding hope to meet than on horseback? And what better time to find it than in the morning of ones life? Not every fine dream must be crushed in the ring, which is a mockery of God’s world anyway. There was no danger I needed to introduce her to. She had seen enough, for one who sees. All morning she had reminded me of my friend Annie, whose fear was long outrun by joy. I knew Annie would say life is short. I knew Annie would say seize the day. I knew Annie would say hold on.

“Hold on,” I said.

Then running beside her with the lunging line, we jogged until her stomach hurt and galloped until she knew what every good swing in her life was meant to foretaste. It was foolish of me, for now she thinking she could do it herself. Someday soon, I’d bet my saddle on it.

We rubbed down the mare and put her to pasture, then walked out of the barn and into the garden, lush from summer rain and lightening. 

“I love this place,” said the girl.

“The flowers?”

“Everything. Thank you.” We stood beside each other before her words, all stored up and costly, like reverent pilgrims before a Michelangelo, kneeling down to weed awhile, till we heard the sound of her brother coming through the drive.

For you that took the all-in-all the things you left were three. 

A loud voice for singing and keen eyes to see,

And a spouting well of joy within that never yet was dried!

And I ride.

Hilarie Belloc, Complete Verse: “The Winged Horse”

Shepherd My People

 

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One of my dear elderly friends is a member of a local church here, the church I was baptized in as a baby. She is on the board, meaning I know not what, but what I do know is that she often calls the pastor to tell him how he is doing.

“And how is he doing?” I asked. We were watching a storm come in.

“Well mostly fine. Sometimes he steps on toes, goes too long without talking to someone, you know, and I let him know they’re upset. He’s always quick to speak to them the following week, and long to stay. But he’s not good at home visits and hospitals. I’m always on him about that. He says they didn’t cover that enough in seminary and he’s scared. People won’t understand that, I tell him, so you have to go anyway.” She sighed, as if over a wayward son.

I shrugged. “He came with communion when Pop was dying and I thought he did great.”
“Who did?”
“Pastor Dave.”
“Pastor Dave?”
“Yes.”
“Pastor Dave came to Harold? ‘
“Yes.”
“With communion?”
“Yes.
“Who was there?”
“Just the three of us. ”
“I didn’t know.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. It was beautiful. And unexpected. He didn’t call, I don’t think, just showed up at the door with a little silver communion set.”  It was like something from a storybook, that day, like a scene with Father Tim from Jan Karon’s Mitford, except cowritten by George MacDonald, for I still could hardly make sense of it beyond praise. “Pop was in and out of consciousness. He apologized for not coming sooner, but it was alright. I didn’t know he was scared.”

We were quiet awhile. She was disrupted, not because she wasn’t grateful, but because she wasn’t grateful sooner. She was further disrupted when she considered what else she may not know. This man had received her correction humbly, perhaps even foolishly, for such open criticism could hardly be healthy to the average pastor, apart from his wife, if he’s lucky. He hadn’t shared his victories, even to an old woman who would’ve relished and repeated them. A whole year had passed since that day when he brought the Lord’s supper to a stunned girl and an unconscious old man long loved by the church he was appointed head of, daily serving and only sometimes welcome in himself. Too heady, too preachy, too northern, they’d said.

“And he’s always quoting old people,” one told me once.
“Old people? Like yourself?” And I guess I deserved that dirty look.
“Dead people. Long dead.”

Maybe it was those long dead people who taught him not to stand on his rights and maintain his superiority and make it known how dearly he deserved his wage. Maybe it was Samuel Rutherford’s down with your top sail! Stoop man, stoop. It is a low entry into heaven’s gates, or Paul’s, do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves, that gave him that secret character we only occasionally stumble upon in this world. But it’s living people who will love him for it, I thought, as I saw the dark skyline pass from my friend’s determined face. She had thought of a way to show him and I knew her well done would be a good foretaste of the Father’s, and worth every bit of her pastor’s long obedience. 

“Here is Your War”

“In wartime it is an axiom that the closer you get to the front the less you know about what is going on… we would often say to each other that we wished we were back in New York so we could find out how we were doing,” wrote war correspondent Ernie Pyle. My great-grandmother Lela, an orphaned, adopted cowgirl, turned young wife and rancher, bore many babies, the depression, dust bowl and two world wars. She read these words and smiled, blew out the lamp, turned over and closed her eyes. When she read the headlines from Washington she would dream of wastelands, scorched earth and young bodies shriveling up, smaller and smaller into dust in the ceaseless wind. Even when it was good news, she’d wonder what they weren’t saying, what frontlines they concealed for morale, if her boy was there in the silent place, or her neighbor’s. She’d heave her sore bones into the kitchen, turn a glass right side up in the pie safe, strike a match and pick up where she left off in Brave Men. She would read simple, common things about simple common men: Tom Temple, or rather Thomas Nicholas Temple, was a seaman second class. His father deliberately put in the middle name so the initials would read TNT. Tom, aged nineteen, was tall and thin, very grave and analytical. He talked so slowly I thought sometimes he was going to stop altogether… then across the spine, Arch Fulton, of 493 East 129th Street, Cleveland, Ohio was an electrician’s mate second class. Before the war he worked as a lineman for the Cleveland Illuminating Company. Fulton was married and had two children. He was thirty-seven, much older than most of the crew. He was born a Scotsman and went to America at seventeen… turning the page, Arch had a short pompadour which slanted forward and gave him the look of standing with his back to the wind. He had a dry Scottish humor, and he took the Navy in his stride. Back in Cleveland he used to read my columns, so you can see he was a smart man… then at the bottom there, her favorite Fred Moore, a young black man from Alabama who was a wizard at baking delicate and beautiful pastries. He made all the pastry desserts for the officers mess. He had never done any cooking before joining the Navy, except to fry a few hamburgers at a short-order joint. He couldn’t explain his knack for pasty baking. It was just like somebody who can play the piano beautifully without ever taking lessons. The whole ship paid tribute to his streak of special genius… but before she could get to Fred Moore’s view on the action, she dropped off, her head back on the bars of the rocker, dreaming of young men growing as fat and as merry as Santa Claus, eating Fred’s pastries. When the roosters started crowing, she woke gently from letting out the seams on a thousand uniforms.  

Today is the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings of WWII, or D-Day. I had seven great-uncles in the war, and two of them were Lela’s sons. One of these, Harold Lewis, was missing in action. A government man came all the way out to the ranch to give them the news. Lela went right on praying for his safety every day, until the end of the war when he turned up in an army hospital. He was 68 pounds. She and his wife went to get him, and despite the doctors orders, bailed him out and brought him home at last. When Ernie Pyle died in the Spring of 1945, they say Lela mourned him like a son. He had helped her through war on every side, from without and within, from the enemy across the great sea to the black rat snake eating her biddies in the chicken coop. He brought the women of America to the frontlines, the trenches and the shores, where they longed to be, and yet he left them in their own battles still, better fit to face them, ashamed to turn back at danger, resigned to suffer quietly, quick to smile and ready to laugh at anything that halfway qualified. He didn’t spare them the painful truth, and they respected that. He told of boots sticking out from deep in the sand like driftwood, of photographs and cigarettes and blank writing paper littering the ground, but also of sunsets and sights beyond their imaginations and gardens to pale their own struggling crops, yet in all this, a world not unlike Vian, Oklahoma, Georgetown, Kentucky or Esto, Florida. He opened their eyes not only to the story in Europe, but the story at home, so that, when the sons and brothers and husbands returned, the ones who did, they found that they were remembered by name and known, not only in their place, but every place and every heart where Ernie Pyle was loved and read and mourned. Just a cheerful man with a typewriter, facing the smoke, asking questions, listening and telling the truth.

If you don’t remember him, it’s because you haven’t asked a lady of that time if she does. 

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