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.


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. 

painting 8

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.



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