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:
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.
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!
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.