Two years ago today I wrote this about my friend Rose, and it continues to be one of my most read pieces. Rose is keeping on in the right good old way, imperfectly and often eccentrically, but what else would you expect from a redhead?
Right now I am taking a break from weeding the raspberries, sitting in the shade with my back against the dry-stack wall my husband built from creek rocks. This job would’ve taken no time a year ago, but now my belly is tender and breathing doesn’t come easy leaning over. I am slower and need to drink and eat and rest more. This is because there is a new member in the community. I am learning that who I am has nothing to do with my waist size or the amount of work I can get done. Who I am was all along more about this new person inside than those other things.
We don’t know if the baby is a boy or girl, but we have names. Well-aged, simple names. My grandmother’s opinions swing drastically these days and though she liked the girl name at first, now she doesn’t. She literally scoffs.
“Well that’s gotta be the oldest name in the world,” she said, “I mean, wasn’t that the first woman?” The name is not Eve, dear reader, and so the answer is no.
There is something I want to tell you. I never thought I would write a book because I didn’t have a subject. There was nothing I could say that someone else couldn’t say better, and maybe that’s still true, but I do have a book inside me now nonetheless. I know what it is, and what its name will be. It will take time, because it needs me to live longer and steadier and slower, and maybe suffer, maybe many years. But I can feel it moving inside me sometimes and I know it has life. I wanted to let you know, as many of you have let me know you are there and listening, even to tell me when I spell a word wrong, as I am prone to do.
The book— it is an old simple subject, maybe one of the first ideas, and I know I will go about it imperfectly, but God doesn’t seem to withhold anything from us because of this, does he? Or else I would’ve have two good things to rub together.
Yesterday, Mama hurt her back and on the way out the gate Dad called and asked me to check on her as soon as I could. So I walked to their house in the early morning, carrying a load of laundry because our dryer is broken. She needed a cup of coffee and a breakfast of leftovers from the meal we made together the night before. “And one other thing,” she said, “would you do me a big favor?” She reminds me so much of her father with that dramatic lead.
“Go down to the spillway and get us some minnows for the rain barrel.”
“Yeah if you don’t mind.” Apparently she could rest easier in the back knowing the minnows were busy eating the mosquito larvae.
And so I began this day carefully taking my round self down the broken steps to the pond, crossing the dam to the spillway, where the minnows and tadpoles and snakes and turtles live. It was cool and lovely and it occurred to me that without a woman’s peculiar anxieties and household cares, I would not be here. Without my willingness to be sent, she would’ve had to suffer in her worries and the mosquitos might have taken over the world.
My life is small and I move sometimes according to my own desires, but often according to the desires of other people. This is true for you as well. We are all members of one another. This is an obvious blessing sometimes, but it can also be frustrating and painful. I guess a big choice we have in this life is how graciously and contentedly we will fill our place and if we will do it with love and forbearance or not.
I have been sitting here too long. These raspberries will be come and gone by the time I’ve thought through these things and the baby is pushing against the confinement of his place. Soon there will be more freedom for this child, and more anxiety for us. There will be rules and expectations and dangers and lessons. In time (let me say it while I can) there will be freedom to go. Freedom to go free and blessed, but there will be the freedom also to stay and the freedom to come back home, though they’ve gone a thousand miles.
“Creatures, I give you yourselves,” said the strong, happy voice of Aslan. “I give to you forever this land of Narnia. I give you the woods, the fruits, the rivers. I give you the stars and I give you myself.”from the Magician’s Nephew
I heard a man say once that he had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which never happened. They could put this on my tombstone, but I wish they wouldn’t. I have apprehended trouble. I have taxed my life with forethought of grief, as the poet said. Yet I walk back to our little house in the dark of the early morning, in the unseasonable warmth under the lightning in the sky and know myself abundantly looked after. The clouds are covering the moon and it is too dark to see the ground, but I know it. I’ve walked this ground for twenty-eight years. I used to have a sandbox down this hill. The lights are on in Harestock. That’s where I came from and where I’m going. The Bantam rooster in the chicken tractor is warming up his chords for crowing. He is the lone rooster in the flock now and slower to get started, but once he does he will keep going ’til the light is settled.
Harestock is the home I have made with my husband. It is a one-room cottage, still unfinished in many ways, but then so is every place alive. By the lightning, you can see the samples of blue paint we have tested on the rough-sawn siding, and just the infancy of landscaping: a rose called Pilgrim trellised under a hickory tree, a newly planted dogwood tree, a stone-lined bed of Iris, a raised bed of strawberry plants, red buckeye trees under the oaks, and a cedar post supporting a wisteria vine. I know it is foolish to plant wisteria. It is more foolish still to steal wisteria, yet this is what we did. You had to get creative with dates in the year Twenty-twenty, ask anyone.
A year ago this April we got engaged on the hillside where we thought we would build a house some day. That was my dream as a child, but as I sit here now in the place we’ve made, our own child alive and kicking inside of me, that is not important anymore. It is possible for dreams to change without any sadness. By chance Ruth was gleaning in the field of Boaz, the verse goes and nothing was the same for her again. God uses that phrase in our lives more than we know. There is another verse that says, surely goodness and mercy will chase after me all the days of my life, and that chase after part He seems partial to, as well. If they wanted to put that one on my tombstone, it would be alright.
As I reach the house it starts to rain softy, but the tin roof makes it sound like the work it is and justifies just sitting down. There is already something being done. The rooster stops his crowing and leads his girls back up into the roost. He has a tin roof too and feels the same way I do. I have myself a breakfast of milk and cereal. My sister opened our little gas refrigerator the other day and said so I guess this is living on love. She didn’t know about the bag of boiled peanuts in the freezer.
The simple thing I have to say about marriage after seven months is that it is very very good. I know it can be hard too, as this is often spoken of. But I think all the talk about the sanctification in marriage is overkill. Sanctification is coming for you, child, regardless. I think the warning label tied to marriage comes from a reserve in love, in case it turns sour and hurts us even worse for having spoken so highly of it. Despite all the songs and stories, I was afraid to expect love and even now I am still often afraid to acknowledge it. But I am learning that if you don’t speak in this life you are wasting it.
In the Spring, if you go into the woods with an owl call and blow it, the male turkeys will gobble in response to the sound. They call this a shock call. And once one gobbler starts, many more will take it up, just like roosters. They are not afraid. They are loud because they are happy and the world feels good to them, and because they are a little crazy in love. They are loud because they were made to speak up.
In the span of history, I’m not sure these years will make the books. In view of the life of the earth, Harestock may fall to the ground and be no more than an odd high spot on a slope. And yet this full year and this little house I find so hard to keep clean, and all the funny moves of a human being inside of me, they are the God of the Universe chasing after us, surprising me with joy in return for all the trouble I’ve suspected, taxing my life with a burden of gratitude, so that in the end my tombstone would most truly say: she didn’t say thanks near enough.
I cannot remember not having some of the basic woodworking skills, said Robert Wearing in The Essential Woodworker. I have not read this book, but merely this line over my husband’s shoulder.
But it’s a wonderful thought, isn’t it, that we could give our children such inherent knowledge? That, like a native tongue, we could give them not only wisdom, but skill, and this just by living in fellowship, without even trying.
Perhaps sometimes we will use words. Osprey, we might say, pointing to the high bird circling the pond, and they will see in time how it is a different creature from a buzzard or an eagle, but we do this as a lover of the world, and not as a lecture, and not really mindful of them, as impressionable children, at all. Perhaps we cannot remember not knowing the osprey, or perhaps we had to learn this ourselves, but either way we want them to know it too. As Robert Farrar Capon so famously said, a silent lover is one who doesn’t know his job. What better thing can you give a child than love and a great capacity for love? God has made this an easy thing in the abundance of His love all around us.
But then sometimes, we won’t be saying anything, yet just watching us loosen the tomato roots and bury them deep with epsom salt, will be, not only what plants this knowledge in them, but keeps them gardening year after year, no matter where they may live and what changes in their lives. One day looking back they may realize that they didn’t know a lot of things and were confused and lost more than once, but they knew how to plant tomatoes and they knew their ospreys from their eagles, and bits of truth like this make up a big part of our joy in this life and give us moorings stronger than we know in uncertain times.
I think perhaps the best and most useful education there can be is in a true knowledge of yourself, who you are and what you were made for, and then in a foundation of useful, nourishing skills and finally, in the ability to learn and gain whatever knowledge you may find yourself lacking. Perhaps there are other things but those seem primary, and looking back in my not so distant childhood, all the real education I had was from my parents and grandparents, and not my school.
Yet for a time, I was meant to be the chubby kid gagging on her toothbrush and dreading the eternal day of classes and bells and heavy books and uncool tennis shoes and nothing decent to eat and a glorious headache by the end of it all. I am glad God wrote this into my story, as it obviously seemed best to him, and I’m gladder still that he cut the cord and tied it off. But there are many seasons in life we do not pass by so easily.
My sister used to be a seamstress. She learned in high-school but it became part of her and she loved it. She worked for awhile making custom drapery, gave classes and made her own clothes, including her wedding dress. She has lived many years now without a sewing machine or fabric or even a good pair of shears. She is living in a camper with three small children and no extra room for this knowledge, but she said to me the other day, with tears in her eyes, please don’t give my fabric away. I didn’t intend to, but neither did I understand what it meant to her, and how she dreamed of sewing again one day and giving that to her daughters. The thought that this good thing that she was and worked to become, that she reclaimed from our grandmother and all the generations of women before her, might just be lost, was tragic. I can understand this, because I feel the same about writing.
I know there will come a day, and soon, even this summer, when I will wonder if I will ever write again, and I’ll love my life but hate the limitations of body and soul that bind me to live ever as an amateur, merely a lover, grateful, but never good at what I am doing, never able to accumulate being and become great, but just walking on, often shedding unnecessary raiment on the way, simply satisfied most days to get comfortable laying down, simply doing whatever most needs to be done. But I know that what God does with water, how the streams flow to the river and the rivers to the sea, how the rain and the snow fall to the earth and fill the secret springs (these things I learned as a child), he does even more so with his sons and daughters.
My sister called and we were talking about seedlings and how ours were getting on. You know, she said, I think I will always garden…. I mean, no matter what, no matter what else changes and where I should live or go or do, I think I will still be gardening.
Yes, I said, I think I will be too.
This certainty is a gift from our childhood. It is a rare and special thing, and something more, a comfort.
If I cannot bear to be like the father who did not soften the rigors ofthe far country… then I know nothing of Calvary love.
I have seen enough of death to know that sometimes things get easier when a person dies. It’s just the truth. But then there are some people, a certain type of man I think, who, even though he suffers long and hangs by a thread, as long as his heart beats, he holds the world in place. He is feared and respected as long as he breathes. My grandfather, emotional and silly as he was, was a man like that, and nothing, nothing got easier when he died. Four years later, we are still suffering from his absence. Just a few moments of him here with us again would part our troubled waters, but this cannot be.
Our favorite dog, in the last few years of his life, would have days when he was mostly normal except he couldn’t lift his head. We called it a head’s down day, and we were all a little sad on one of those.
When my grandfather left this old world, as he often teased he would, he left my grandmother to head’s down days. There are some people who just need someone else, plain and simple. Need is not the same as love, but I think to be happy to both need and be needed by someone makes up a lot of our love in the long run. She needed everything he was. She needed someone to decide what was right and who was right. She needed someone to hang up the phone. She needed someone to roll his eyes and shake his head. She needed someone to wink and say Ree baby, why don’t you come on over here. She would run from him most of the time, but he was also the one she would run to.
I just don’t know anything anymore, she said. And whenI do know something, I know it’s not right. I tried to imagine how this might feel, and it was truly the worst feeling in the world. We would have done all we could to spare her from this. Even now, we imagine sometimes we still can. But as she is dying by living into her limits and frailty, so are we. We cannot fix this. The best we can do is stay with her, whether she knows we’re there or not.
The good thing about being raised a Christian is that the Scriptures easily come to mind. The bad thing is that you can suppress them as old news, a flippant answer, as so many cliches. It is hard to know if you should bring them out in suffering or not. And so I think the Lord sometimes must bring us to a point where it’s simply all we have. We reach back and pull them out. We smooth the pages and shine a light. We read now like a traveler reads his map.
So I found a notepad in her house and in big print, dividing the letters equally with the blue dotted line between the two solid ones, just like she used to do for me, I wrote the verse from Philippians 4: The Lord is at hand. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard you hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
She read it many times. The peace of God, she said.
She loses papers easily, but that verse has stayed around her little white recliner for weeks now. She had gone over the words with a pen. She has written beside them:
God is near to the brokenhearted.
It is not my place, nor in my power, thank goodness, to keep her from this truth, but I know I will try again and again, for her and for many others… And I will learn it myself in the trying, for we are not given two heavens, but one, and we are a long way yet from there.
“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.”
There is a track of land for sale down the road. It was mostly scrub pines but it had a low spot with hardwoods. They were cut and piled up to burn and a giant hole was dug in their place. This was six months ago. It has been the wettest season I can remember. It hasn’t rained in three days, but still the ground is soggy. Our creeks are full and noisy. The spill way is running over.
But there is more water standing in pools at our gate than there is in that mud hole down the road.
The story goes, the owner of the land was told that a pond site would sell the property. So he thought he could make a pond site where there was none. What is a pond, he thought, but a hole in the ground with a drainpipe?
Mankind can do marvelous things, we can stand on the moon, but still we cannot make a straight thing out of a crooked one.
Farther down the road, there is a place called A Preferred Woman’s Health Care Clinic, and there, with marvelous knowledge, they look inside a human being, a woman. They turn the volume down. The heart is deafening.
“Is there a baby?” She will ask. They do not show her.
“Yes, but a small one.”
When she comes outside she says it is a clump of cells and for $400 they can make a wound so terrible she will dread the memory of it. She has been told over and over again until it sounds right, that the body inside her is hers, and because she sees herself as a larger clump of cells and an even more wretched mistake, this thought does not invoke the tenderness she used to have toward the baby doll that was her own.
Until it does. Sometimes a human being, a woman, is washed clean and given eyes to see— not only what she has, but what she has been given, not only who she is, but what she may become: A straight thing, and whole and healed, but only in time and in the hands of the God who knows us all as only children, whose deep holes and ugly graves he will tend to blossoming, even to make the thoughts of our hearts as his, who said, “I have loved you as the Father has loved me. You must go on living in my love.”
This is my beautiful friend, Grace, and this is her story:
When I was little and growing up, my favorite place of all was the Old Man’s Field, which was a homesite from the 1920’s, with a chimney pile overgrown with little trees. I would spend hours looking around, poking in the dirt for pieces of pottery and unearthing homemade bricks. Every now and then in the field I would find parts of a plowshare and old medicine bottles. It was my place. Everyone knew it was sacred to me, special. And then one day my dad bulldozed it. He cleared out all the scrub trees and spread the chimney pile out. He didn’t even ask me. I was so hurt and angry.
I remember Mama trying to reason with me. She said we wouldn’t have been keeping it the way it was, because it wasn’t like that when the old man was here. But it had been like that as long as I had been here. So I stayed away, so as not to see it torn up.
But then, do you know what happened?
I went back one day in the Spring. The ground was covered over with daffodils, the old-fashioned, sweet-smelling butter and egg type and snowdrops. They had been overcrowded and buried in the pile. Then scattered in the field everywhere were treasures, at least to me: I found his leather shoe soles and buckles and buttons and beautiful little cosmetic bottles and iron bed posts and many more plowshares and farming tools. It was one of the happiest days of my life. Garlic also came up in the field later that year, and canna lilies. I went back after that more often than ever before, sometimes every day, if only for a few minutes. I found that I could love that place as it was, at it is and as it be will.
I told my friend Rachel this story yesterday as we dug up the old iris bed, slicing the roots and tearing them apart. She said it was a good one and I’m inclined to think so too.
I have a new grandfather, and he’s just what one should be. I rode in his truck the other day and he, being a non-stop and lighthearted talker, had a special air of sobriety about him, as he took the opportunity of our aloneness to give me his advice for living. He said, when I am old, I will need something to dream about. He said people say pretty don’t mean much, but it does. He was speaking of firewood, but I guess it’s true everywhere. He said my life would go by faster than I could imagine, and he said he reckoned the most important thing he had learned was that, before you do something, you need to think about it.
I’ve been having the feeling like I need to do some thinking. I sit down to go about it, usually in the early morning, and I get up feeling like I never started. I feel, more than ever before, in need of blessing. I feel as if, very soon, something will be required of me, and I won’t have it. Like a debt will be called in that I cannot pay. I looked through the Bible for something new that I might be missing, and could not find it, so I took down an old journal this morning and read:
I feel so far from you because there is this big thing before me. It is in my way and I cannot see you.
I am nothing but a dry river bed for him to fill— but he will, he will.
She said it was when I most noticed the dirt that he was nearest to me, and so maybe I could not see him because he was so close.
“Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.”
Every few weeks there is a little loss I have to let go because it is already gone. God help me move forward.
I am greatly in need of solid joys and lasting treasures.
You will not pull the rug from me; there is no sword over my head. You have never treated me like that.
Lewis said it was our duty, as Christians, to be as happy as we can, and you know, it’s not a hard thing to do. It’s easy once you get started.
I’ve been talking to him since I was a little girl, and the things I asked him for, imperfectly, he has given me now, even while I am prayerless and distracted.
I don’t know what was going on when I wrote these things. I am both the same person and different. I have lived through many thoughts, but I have not lived past them.They come again. There are more to come, but it is a comfort to pass by the old ones and remember that life was hard but good, as it always is.
There were a couple friends dear to me, and one in particular, who found it a stumbling block that I should marry. I understand this, because I felt the same way when my sister married. You feel like they have gone where you cannot follow, and on purpose too. I know it hurts, but I wish that friend could see how I sit in bed in the early morning and search for meaning, just like I used to do, and how I long for God and feel afraid sometimes, just like I used to, and how I still incline my ear and long to hear from my friends who I love, just like I always will. It is true that there are new things for me now and I am distracted in a pleasant way, but all the old, unpleasant things are just as true as they ever were, and sometimes more so.
My husband asked me the other day what I missed most about being a child. I couldn’t think of anything at first, but the question stayed with me until I could remember. I miss not having to get dressed after a bath. We would get wrapped in towels and laid on the couch and could just sit there bundled up as long as we liked. I miss not having to walk. I was held a lot, even as a kid, as the youngest of them all. But mostly I miss my sister. I miss the closeness we had when we were all the world to each other. That’s just not the case anymore, nor should it be. I see the back of her head in church, and realize we have not talked in days. I used to wait for her to call, but now she waits for me, but then she has to go quickly and so do I. When we have time, we often don’t know what to say, there is so much and all of it beside the point compared to all the important things we apparently had going on as children.
It is a new thing to me, and an important one, to be able to look back and really love what was, without loving less what is. God does not need to take from one bowl to fill the next. I do not love my friend less because I have a husband. I do not love my sister less because we have grown up. I do not love my single years less because I have a baby. Too much love and gratitude is never the problem, but only a wanting of it.
I’ve been told not to be precious with my words, but really, I don’t need to be precious with anything that is good. There is always more where it came from. And when more love and more faith, more than ever before, is called for, as it will be, it will be there.
Still I have not thought the thing I need to think, but maybe I’m coming close.
Here’s a story. When my grandfather was sixteen he found himself hungry, in trouble and homeless in his own hometown. There was an army recruiting bus coming through, and without saying goodbye to anyone, he lied about his age and jumped on it. He liked the army. He grew four inches taller because they fed him. But soon he became scared of soldiering. He became homesick and lonely. For the first time in his life he broke out in eczema all over his body. They moved him to a hospital and covered him with tar. When he recovered he realized he was not too far from home. So he ran.
They found him in his mother’s house in Georgetown, Kentucky. He was brought before the commanding officer. In a surprising turn of grace this man asked my grandfather to be his personal driver, an epic promotion from the brig where he was heading, and from normal soldiering. This would have been a perfect opportunity for my grandfather to say, thank you, sir, but I don’t know how to drive.
But learning comes slowly, change even slower and truth makes itself known faster than usual when you’re dealing with a stick-shift. Without a word of reproof, the officer just patiently taught the boy to drive, as if he was his own grandfather without much to do, going no where in particular.
Sixty years later, as my grandfather taught me to drive, he must’ve told me this story a hundred times. We all have stories like this, when life could’ve gone either way, when you look back to see how good came upon you like a big sneeze, and you were sort of ridiculous but obviously watched over, and precious. It is like waking up in the morning to find you left the front door standing wide open. We love this kind of story because it is a moment of clarity, a prelude to the day we’ll look back and see, not how much we earned, all our shining moments, but how He made good of our mistakes and gave us a future we did not deserve.He is able to do this, being Almighty God, and willing also, being a faithful Father.
I was in the kitchen making dinner when my grandmother called.
There’s a mob on the TV… she said, But that’s aways from here isn’t it?
Yes that’s aways from here.
I was comforted by her. She’s lived through so much. Mobs come, mobs go. Should this one concern her? No, it shouldn’t. It doesn’t. Then she talked about the tree limb that fell on the fence and what she had for dinner and how she used to make the best beef stew. Then she remembered Joyce Paulk, her neighbor when they lived in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, who made the best Brunswick stew and who now lives in a nursing home in Georgia, who still sends us all birthday cards and twenty-dollar bills every year, who we send packages to often, as she is in lockdown and lonely.
My grandmother lived through the great-depression, but this did not concern her either. She had a happy childhood filled with music and cowboys and horses and brothers. Her troubles were the death of her good friend, who died of tetanus from barbed wire and the death of her younger brother, who bled out in her mother’s arms on the way to the hospital. These things came to her and hurt and changed her. The crash of the stock market? It was merely an event that marked her time.
I hope most of the children of this generation will remember the pandemic and political mess in the same way. I know that children do not concern themselves with what does not concern them, and although it might seem too simplistic I’m beginning to believe this is what God would want from me.
He spent most of my roaring twenties remaking my hunger for glory. Teaching me blessed are the unambitious. Now I am learning that not only am I small, but that I am called to seek the small, which is all I can do really, or all I can do well. I am not omnipresent or omniscient or omnipotent. Not by a long shot. And when I try to be more than I am I end up slumming in subhuman ways as Chad Bird says.
When my grandfather would see me brow furrowed, disturbed, he would say, Hey, don’t worry about the mule being blind, just load the wagon. This was mostly silly and a way to make me take myself less serious, but he also meant by this, just do what you’re supposed to do, kid.
So it turns out God does not require me to know what’s going on in Washington, DC. He does not require me to hold a strong political opinion or knowledge about current affairs or even read the news. He does not require me to trust or endlessly seek out or particularly give a rip for any great person’s learned opinion on the myriad of anxieties that churn the internet. He does not require me to give lip in a public forum. He does not even require me to vote. He does not require from me any burden that he has not himself laid on me in his Word.
But what he does require from me there is a heap. A gracious plenty. A lifetime spent, given away, used up, kaput. A life patterned after his.
My husband and I are going to have a baby, Lord willing, in the summer. Well we have a baby already don’t we? But right now that child is being kept in a very special way, and it’s a comfort to know he or she is safe from me, for the time. Safe from my failures. But soon that will not be the case. What do I want my child to have? The answer has come back by different roads: Peace. Peace of heart. Peace of conscience. Peace with neighbors. Peace with God. Peace in, what looks like, troubled times.
Much of this will be out of my hands. But a mother does impact the peace of her baby’s heart, I think, in many ways, and so how do I become less anxious? It is a sweet riddle to know that I must become more like a child.
Children cannot help the grief that’s laid before them, but neither do they thirst for a knowledge of evil that is beyond them. Children mind their own business. They do. They love their places. They make house. They care about the opinions of those blundering hairy old souls around them, even though they are nobodies. They don’t know who’s a nobody.
And so in the start of this new year, I asked myself questions concerning local faithfulness. I thought they might be helpful to you too. I want to make it very clear that I do not bring them as that person who loves to bring a question to which he already has a well-formulated answer, but rather as an honest searching out of myself. How well am I really loading the wagon? Not so hot most days. I’m sure there are many more questions to be asked, and maybe you can see some blind spot of mine here…. Rejoice they are not yours! These are not meant to be lived out all at once or independently of others. They are not meant to imply that we should not support foreign missions or care very deeply for the persecuted church or that is is wrong to be very political or that God does not have a redemptive plan for the nations. I could think of more caveats, but thankfully my readers have never required that from me. This is simply a practical working out in my own life of 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12.
The emphasis on food may be because I have been incessantly hungry.
These are difficult times. I have heard more than one woman say they do not think it wise to bring a child into the world right now. And certainly I would not create a beautiful fragile human and deliver them to the media or the steps of the oval office. But God creates, thank goodness, and delivers humans unto trembling, confessing, able parents and gives us all tender hearts with a hole the size of his own self and then he promises to come and make his home there forever and ever, there in that little bitty heart he loves, if we will trust him.
And so I think it is always a good time to be born, because there is always, always, hope.
And so here are the questions, dear reader. They are for me and maybe for you, if you will have them:
Have I made the place I live a more beautiful, productive, homelike place? Do I know the plants and native animals around me? Am I familiar with the lakes, rivers and creeks? Do I know the history of the place? Do I have enough food to feed my household without going to the store for awhile? Do I have enough food to share with my neighbors? Do I know my neighbors? Do I take them gifts of food? Is my home open to them? Do my neighbors have my number and know they can call on me to help them?
Do I know the local poor? Do I know the local widows? If there are local farmers, do I know them and support them? If I have enough land to grow or raise my own food and food to share, am I doing so? If able to do so, do I choose and support small local businesses? Do I have more or as many local friendships than long-distance or internet-based ones? Do I do anything that frustrates my neighbors? Do I participate in the life of my local church? Do I ever behave rudely or self-seeking to those around me? Is there an abortion mill close by? Can I minister there or support those who do? Is there a nursing home close by? Can I minister there or support those who do? Is there a prison close by? Can I minister there or support those who do? Do I enter the home of the sick or chronically ill? Do I bring them gifts of food or send notes of encouragement? Do I make myself open to the children God would give me?
Do I make an effort to give whatever skills or gifts I have to my community? Do I look around and notice what is happening around me? Am I prepared to respond in an emergency? Do I quickly respond to anyone in my local community who reaches out or asks for my help?
Do the opinions of those I know personally matter more to me than than the opinions of those I don’t? Or am I a long-distance hero-worshipper and a short-distance critic?
Do I remember and honor and forgive my parents? Do I make an effort to actually physically care for my parents or grandparents? If I am long distance from them do I frequently call, send notes and gifts of food? If I am close by do I visit them often and meet any needs they may have? Do I remember my family stories? Have I asked my parents, grandparents good questions about their lives? If I am married, do I do all the same for my husbands family? Do I remember and show love to my siblings? Do I pray for my enemies and those who hate me?
Do I see the world around me as the main theatre of my life, the focus of my thoughts, words and duties? Am I at rest with being as unseen as an unborn child? Am I at peace?
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.