When I was thirteen or fourteen, my family left the mega-church we were in and moved to a very small ‘recovery’ church, and we stayed there for four years. The move was embarrassing. This was a church where people really had problems, and it was assumed that if you went there, you had problems too, which of course we did. It was in a strip mall in an ugly part of town. The carpet might have been green or yellow. The worship band was under-qualified. There was nothing cool about it. There was a large poster in the sanctuary with the Twelve Steps of Recovery, but I only remember the first one: I am powerless, it said.
There was a beautiful woman named Amini. She had been mishandled in the most vulnerable relationship a woman can have, but I didn’t know this at the time. I just remember, one night in a small group, someone was talking about step one, and she leaned in and whispered, this is good and all, but you still gotta give God something to work with.
I think of Amini every new year, and every Spring-time. We are, of course and no doubt about it, totally dependent on his grace for every moment. But I can’t help but think God smiles on those who, in every seed catalog order, every pile of index cards scratched with Bible verses, every reading plan, every playlist and every earnest, bright-eyed intention, try to give Him, for heaven’s sake, a little something to work with.
That is how life goes–we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give him. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s.
I gave my sister Gilead by Marilynne Robinson years ago, and this was the quote she wrote down. I found it one day in her house and was surprised. It wasn’t one of the many lines that stayed with me. It didn’t seem to me like her little daughters were in any sort of wilderness, but then I am not anything like their mother, and I realized she must think many things she doesn’t say, and she must sometimes be afraid.
Many times this week I’ve thought, I won’t worry about my baby when we reach the second trimester. In just a couple weeks, I won’t worry anymore.
But then I realized that, if the Lord is willing, and the child lives on this earth, I will have a fragile, transparent, wailing newborn with a floppy head and then this child will dwell in this very land with mosquitoes and viruses and sharp-cornered coffee tables and unkind people, and he or she will get hurt so often and survive and shake it off— or not. I realized, then, that I will have to either give this child to the Lord every day or be a total wreck of a woman.
My friend, Mrs. Barbara, sent me a blanket and said she prayed over it, for the baby, and I also realized then that to pray for someone’s child is the kindest thing you can do for them. There is no comfort on earth from musicians or poets as sweet as a praying friend, and to know that someone really prays when they say they will, is the truest form of faithfulness.
He tells me he’s given me more than enough material for a lifetime of stories, which is true. I don’t write about him often, because I don’t know where to begin. He is the kind of man folks look at and to and for. “What’s your dad think?” is a familiar question. Sometimes I tell them and sometimes I know it would be best if they didn’t know what he thought.
Women either love him or hate him, but they can’t ignore him. He can say the sweetest, most poetic things, and then he can offend you in ten words or less. It is hard to write about him because he is such a perfect character. His kind are better in fiction or remembered posthumously, perhaps, but then God goes and writes them into our every-day. You look out the kitchen window, and there he stands before you, white beard and red skin, in cowboy hat and Carhartts, with a pipe out the corner of his mouth and a rifle slung over his shoulder.
“Hunting something?” I ask.
“Always,” he says.
Captain Dave was the kind of man who could have taken over the world with ten sons, but the Lord gave him two daughters, who cried as often as girls do, who quickly exposed his faults and who had tempers just as open and obvious as his.
He is a local legend: the oldest, longest-running, most successful fishing guide on the lake. The only guide, to my knowledge, who doesn’t fish on Sundays or curse or play country music. He has been many things in his seventy years, but today he is mostly a grandfather who always reaches out his hands at the dinner table and often cries when he says grace.
I remember sometimes at night he would come kiss us goodnight and sing an old hymn, and I thought what a man this is, my daddy, so burly and loud and rough and covered in fish scales, gently singing:
Bringing in the sheets
Bringing in the sheets
We shall come rejoicing
Bringing in the sheets
And I would dream of a cowboy, with a handle-bar mustache and a brace of pistols, hanging clothes out on the line.