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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Walk as Children of Light

   Sally pointed to the stucco wall, where a bit of paint had chipped off. 

   “Do you see the little boy with the kite, Big Mama?” she asked.

   “No, I don’t. But I used to see things like that.”

My sister Jesse has had four children. One of them died and the youngest is yet to be born. Had I looked ahead into this, selfishly, and seen myself not following her, as I’ve always done, and having marriage and motherhood too, with all its joys and sorrows, I would’ve winced. But this reminds me of what Mark Twain said about having a lot of trouble in his life, most of which never happened, for being an aunt has been a complete delight to me, unstained by even my own selfishness. Not unstained by sorrow, though, which is a kind of stain that well prepares the fabric of our hearts for the seams of the shape we must take if we are to go on in the Image of God. The sorrow comes when the children know sin and death and parting. When they hear harsh words and see angry looks, when we have to help them see those things even already in themselves. When they learn that people we love, those we miss every day and those we never met, died. And slowly, when they learn that death will come to them as well. 

My paternal grandfather died when I was nine, after a long illness. I called him Papa Cigar, because he was always working on a Dutch Master, whose box gave me the mistaken impression that the pilgrims smoked. He had been an MP in the army and then a civilian policeman. He told me, while sitting on his lap, that people were easy to kill. This may seem a disturbing fact to share with a kid, but I remember feeling merely surprised, which is perhaps why he told me.

I spoke to a man the other day who was reasoning that children conceived in violence shouldn’t live. He put up his hand to silence my response, turned to my male friend and said, “I mean, if your wife was raped, would you want that kid?” This man wasn’t confused about when life begins and he didn’t have some misplaced compassion. He wasn’t full of protective love toward women carrying children, or little women being carried. He was glad people were easy to kill, just $395 and a couple hours in his week. He had done this many times, and he didn’t understand why we cared so much. But the truth is, I care too little. I have walked passed open doors in squalid nursing homes because I was afraid. I have driven past those buildings entirely, when I could’ve not been as busy as I was. 

Last week, I lay in a hammock swing under the full moon beside the Port Royal sound. The young people were gone and the old were asleep. The tide was coming in. I always feel very safe in this place. They say the island has a ghost and sane people have seen it. Only at night, for it looks like a light. Just a light. Why do they call it a ghost I asked. Because it’s inexplicable they said, and gives you chills. Sounds like poetry, doesn’t it? Sounds like a whole lot of good things. Sounds like one broken hearted person interceding in the darkest place imaginable. Sounds like the man who loved us when we were his enemies, which is perhaps why it doesn’t make me afraid. 

When my niece Sally was born, she was a strange little thing. She held her head up in the first few days and looked around. She had the oddest unbabylike combination of nose, ears and expression. She was unusually skinny, though strong and healthy, just fine according to the doctors, but many suggested she wasn’t getting enough to eat, which became a continual anxiety for her first time mama. I wondered if people would ever let Sally be different from the Gerber baby. When she was four months old, we introduced her to a few of my dear old lady friends. We were beside a pool together, a group of women all very much exposed, Sally’s fresh skin and new swimsuit beside the wrinkled and papery blue-veined skin, torn and bandaged, of the ladies in swimsuits worn thin. They were too old to buy new ones. It was unlikely they would swim again. We had grown so protective of Sally by this time, but I remember the utter relief and tear-filled joy of Jesse, when Mrs. Georgia held her high and laughed with absolute love for this little elf like girl. And Mrs. Ruby leaned in confidently with her finger in the air, as if to say she heard from on high, “Now that is a marvelous baby.” Sally loves to tell this story, and also of how the very dark skinned old lady from the nursing home held her sister Adah, and proclaimed, “Now ain’t she a doll out the box!” She loves these stories because she knows they make us happy. She doesn’t know all the careless things people could say, or that many fragile babies like herself are cast aside and never lifted high and prophesied over by the Rubys and Georgias of the world. I wish she never had to learn these things. 

Mrs Ruby saw, like Sally’s kite in the stucco, what other’s failed to see and this from lack of light, a light which must rise from salvation of the heart and mind and especially the imagination. To lift a lanky spider-like girl to the sun and call her marvelous, to believe, against all propaganda, that the son conceived of your great hurt is a gift, to defend his life with even more force than with which yours was attacked, to raise that man in the astounding beauty of redemption and the surpassing glory of adoption, to visit those who need to be cleaned and changed, and realize that there is no one to do it but yourself, God helping you, to hear the call toward your neighbor, behold your son, behold your mother, or to wait at the foot of their cross, helpless to do anything but stay.… all this requires exposure and the burning out of our days, until worn out skin sits laughing in worn out suits. To walk as children of light requires all, our lives and many deaths, and more than that, a man, a man of sorrows.

It’s as chilling as a bright spot on a dark island, but the good news is this: you can keep your $395. 

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A Letter to Beth

Dear Beth,

It was last Spring when you said I might write for you. Another year, we’d be tempted to say, and the same. The same fears about the same problems, the same prayers, the same silence. It reminds me of the leak in the Carolina Room, that’s the dining room and my bedroom, you know, with all the windows. My parents aren’t worried about it. After summer fishing, we’ll take a look, they say. I’ve pretty much gotten used to it raining inside the house. Last spring I spread out bowls. Now I just let it come and mop the floor when it’s over. A guest came and asked about all the trees the other day, Aren’t you worried one will fall on the roof? No, they said. We built the house and we can build it again. We can build it again even better. And I can see a sort of excited conspiracy in their eyes as if this was their plan all along. This is an odd way to look at something so important, yet it is like the Lord in a way. 

I know you do not care for some things the Lord has done and you ask yourself why he did them, why he does them. I don’t know, but I’ve been thinking on it. 

One of the big things that led my mother to the Lord was the drowning of a little boy. She was called to the scene as a first responder and did all the things she should do, but he had been in the warm water much too long. At last a helicopter came and she went inside with the unresponsive body as a young paramedic did all he could, but it was no good. She started to shake and cry. He reached out and put his hand on her, in anguish himself. We just keep trying, he said. 

When the emergency room doctor decided it was time to stop trying, Mama joined the family in the waiting room. That was the very worst part of all. The grandmother had to be sedated. The mother viciously blamed the father, who blamed the fourteen-year-old brother who was in pitiful shock that such a thing could even happen under the sun. The hospital chaplain came and added to the awful noise by saying that it was God’s mercy, because the boy could’ve grown up to be a wicked man. God’s mercy, Mama said, was that no one seemed to hear him. 

But that just couldn’t be right, she said to him. He patted her knee. Peace, peace.

How did she not hate the sovereign Lord after that? Well, she went searching for an unseen good, staring long and hard at the unknown God while surrounded on all sides by the awful noise of brazen questions, easy answers and false peace. But yet, she was found by Him. And she found Him good. Faithful in all his words and kind in all his works. Risen, just as he said, and blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe.

But she didn’t find him answering all her questions. How is it that what drew her in could drive others, even us, out? 

I have often forgotten the basic fact of Christianity: that Faith is the evidence of things hoped for, the substance of things not seen. It is rising at dark to walk in the daylight so you might see the dew on the webs you believe were spun. It is enduring the sun’s slow descent in the summer to watch the fireflies dance below Orion. Faith is the rising at dark. It is enduring the sun. It is the sinew in the spider’s silk and the binding in the starry belt: It is obedience. Faith is not ultimately why but yes, sir. It is not lying, not murdering, not stealing. It is loving your neighbor and your neighbors marriage and children and achievements. It is not saying all you think until your heart no longer thinks what you shouldn’t say. It is considering more the dreams and sensitivities of others than your own. It is not taking offense. It is calling your mother who always wants to know why you haven’t called already. It is not feeling sorry for ourselves. It is resting our uncertainties on the ground of all we’ve been told and given already, which is a gracious plenty, isn’t it? 

You know I am not preaching to you. It is just that in lieu of a standing desk I found an old pulpit and I think it’s effecting me. 

Have you noticed a trend of asking questions of (and about) God as if that is evidence of faith and honesty? It might be. But it might be evidence of pride and irreverence too. That tree could fall both ways, as in: did God really say? Raw is the term for baring all feelings and inquiries. I guess in the city that word invokes Whole Foods and expensive honey jars, but on a farm it could be anything. This reminds me of my grandfather who said that when he was a little boy he used to eat dead chickens. This worried me for too long. 

Anyway, the child of God must brace himself to receive questions as well as ask them, and be humbled under them too. Humbled to the point of shutting up. To the point of blind obedience. That’s the kind of thing you find in the kitchens, back yards, tractors and cubicles of the world, laying in hospital beds, bent over bathtubs, slumped over books and standing in the grocery line, and not on social media. 

But maybe I’m just old fashioned. I had a teacher once who wouldn’t let us raise our hands to ask or answer. It seemed like senseless torture at the time, especially as she had us sitting in teams and raising the hand would call down  ‘Disqualified! You and your team!’ I don’t remember now what disqualified meant, but it wasn’t great. Twitter needs that lady. 

In the first book God asks: Where are you? What is this you have done? Why are you angry? Where is your brother? Where have you come from and where are you going? Where is your wife Sarah? Why did she laugh? Is anything too hard for the Lord? Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? What troubles you Hagar? What is your name? Why is it that you ask my name? In the infant story of God and fettered, foolish mankind, I’m weak Eve and passive Adam, jealous Cain, miserable Hagar and confused Abraham. I am mostly impudent, limping Jacob. What you and I aren’t is almighty, the Good Question Asker. 

Beth, in the things you don’t want and can’t love, is He asking you something? But don’t worry— by now I’ve disqualified the whole room well into next year, so you can take your time. 

I came across a mulberry tree today, heavy with fruit. I ate from the low branches. The long dull colored berries are better even than blackberries, sweeter than you could imagine, but they grow high and the wood was so fragile it couldn’t be climbed without breaking a limb. But it was something just to know they were there though out of reach.

Yours, Sarah

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My Roses Want to See You

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   No where does one thing lead to another more than in the garden.  You start out pruning roses, then find yourself pulling the weeds around them and then the weeds everywhere, only to empty the wheelbarrow over the compost pile, fill it again with that good rich dirt and spread it over a waiting bed, in which you sprinkle the arugula and parsley seed you stuck in your back pocket that morning. One plant leads to another too, whether it flourishes or not, it will beget either the stubbornness to try again or a hunger for something new. This I realized today, as I counted the roses in the vegetable garden alone. There were twenty-two. How did this happen you ask? Well I’ll tell you.

    It started as five bare-root roses scrounged from the clearance section at the Park Seed garden festival. They were only a few bucks apiece. What was there to lose? Had we known the whole landscape would be all but taken over one day, we would’ve considered more carefully.  But such is the nature of garden-life: You just never know. (Consider the artichokes, for instance!) They were gaudy hybrid-tea roses with cheesy names like Miss America, Sun Fare and Always and Forever, but they were enough to prove the critics wrong. Roses are worth every bit of the trouble they cause and will go on causing trouble and being worth it long after the lazy postmodern gardeners rest under plastic flower arrangements.  

    In our quest to learn how to prune and defend against the various pests and nefarious spots and molds, we stumbled upon David Austen’s English Roses and thus began the one great love affair of my gardening life. Though the hybrid-teas are still with us, the English Rose is a breed apart. They are simply what roses ought to be. Chesterton said, “I don’t deny that there should be priests to remind men that they will one day die. I only say that at certain strange epochs it is necessary to have another kind of priests, called poets, actually to remind men that they are not dead yet.”  English Roses are the poets of the garden, filling you with rapture while letting blood, wedged between the peppers and the eggplant, like learning in wartime, giving value to survival.

There is Queen of Sweden, Lady of Shalott, Munstead Wood, Generous Gardener, Molineux, Young Lycidas, Lark Ascending and more. We’ve made room for their coming in all their varied hues, scents and postures and we’d gladly scoot the tomatoes over for just one more.

     What’s the secret to rose-gardening? you ask.  Well, there is one and I’ll tell you. Horse manure.  And here again one thing leads to another, for if you give a girl a rose, she’ll need a horse to go with it.

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     “I took a walk through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Believe it or not, there amid the trenches and the bomb craters and in the raw, cold weather was a whole garden of red and yellow roses in bloom.”  -from Ernie Pyle’s Here is Your War

Freedom Also For Her To Stay (and Our Ever Sure Place to Light)

I once wrote lightheartedly about my decision to not go to college and live at home helping my family, but there was a lot more to it than that. “Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful,” Wendell Berry writes in one of my favorite novels, “There is always more to tell than can be told… there is also more than needs to be told, and more than anybody wants to hear.” I am ever conscious of this when I wrestle with words as with a gar fish, fighting the line for hours only to throw him back because nobody wants to eat him or even thinks he’s pretty. But the fisherman and the writer will go on wrestling because the only thing that fights harder than the words you throw back are the words you keep. And the only thing that fights harder than the ideologies you reject are the ones you espouse.

I wrote lightheartedly back then because it was nothing but. I took a lot of grief for that decision. Then I started taking grief for other things too. I think it was Amy Carmichael who said we mustn’t be surprised when the way of the cross leads to the cross and my friend Lore Wilbert is famous for saying Fidelity to the Word of God and not to an outcome. We need to hear these things and frame them on our walls because the immediate path of our decision making won’t be paved, descending and shaded. Mine hasn’t been. It’s really been more like a walk in the fire swamp. Woe unto them that call evil good and good evil, as the prophet said, and this is what we’re up against: those who call shame honor and honor shame, those who throw under the bus what is sacred, like dignity, humility, submission, sacrifice and the freedom in Christ that a young girl has to pursue what’s been laid on her heart, even if it’s, heaven help her, a broken old fashioned home and a community full of all too unconscious sinners. 

I can write more seriously about it now because that was eight years ago. I believe I chose well in that crossroads not because I think higher education and familial independence are bad things or because I’m always delighted with my current status, but because I chose in good conscience. When I was little I was often told by my elders to find a place to light and I would go and try my darnedest to be still and quiet somewhere. Obedience to God and delight in His will, taking up our obvious duties, discerning new ones, using our passions and gifts unto wonder, love and praise— this is our place to light. This is where we can settle down, however unsettled. Every time I get discouraged there is mercifully a friend to say in their own unique way, He created a spot in the world for you, Sarah, and what they’re saying is it’s good. I can see now that one of the most important parts about maturing in Christ, especially as women, is sorting out shame and not-shame, the simple commands of a merciful God versus the heavy and unrealistic expectations of a billion not-gods.

Christ came and died, rose again and now reigns, to give us freedom to obey His Good Word and worship Him, no longer slaves to sin, to what people think, to what everyone else is doing, to fear of the future, to love of money, to love of self, to fear of entropy, to convincing everyone of our love-worthiness, to endlessly attempting to atone for our own guilt, glory be. It takes a little time to grow into this freedom, like a young tree breaking through the canopy. It takes a little time for all these pitfalls and temptations to occur to us. About eighteen to twenty years, I’d say. And if we need help, Aunt Ellen is there. How will you marry a doctor and be rich if you don’t go to medical school? How will you show the world what women can do if you don’t go into the workforce and compete against men? How will you dress well, have a grand house and nice vacations if you don’t market yourself? How will you become somebody without changing drastically? Grilled at the Fourth of July picnic, served on a platter for everyone to pick at, shamed for things that are not shame and exposed to the judgement of lesser gods, you will surely be confronted with everything your heart could run after but the One Thing Needful.   

Who hindered you from obeying the truth? Paul asks in Galatians 5. Bound up in Christ, we can say nobody. Ain’t nobody able to do that. No sir. 

These things are on my mind because a friend of mine is graduating from high school this summer and we spent the day together recently. Her family owns a dairy and her grandparents could use her help and her parents left the decision to pursue college and a career at this time or not, up to her. She’s decided to do what I did, but I fully intended to talk her out of it. I was afraid she was following me, and that’s a broken mooring. She’s already met with opposition in her extended family, church and peers, but this small redheaded girl who is normally so laid back explained to me with passion that she believed staying home and doing the needed work was God’s will for her life. She had thought it out and made her decision in good conscience and she didn’t care what great Aunt Ellen said or anyone else for that matter, presumably myself included. I was driving when she said this and we both just kept looking straight ahead. I don’t think I said a thing, but what I thought was, Good.‘Cause girl that’s what it takes. 

She’ll cross her bridges when she comes to them. She’ll probably think more than once of running away and changing her name, and daydream about starting over someplace where people are more appreciative. She’ll struggle with resentment in her lowliness and bitterness toward her authorities. She’ll pray for deliverance out of her problems, and accept deliverance in them, ever so slowly. She’ll learn to prize courage more than safety through feeling very afraid. She’ll be chased out from beneath all her false hopes. When the outcome isn’t what she thought, suddenly looking back in eight years, she’ll forget her first love and worry. She’ll worry that God has put her on a shelf and forgotten her, even though she never forgets the cows at milking-time. Then she will be very very happy. Her joy will come upon her as gentle as fireflies, as surprising as summer lightening. In other words, my friend Rose will be like every other woman who chooses, despite the particulars of place of work and rest, mere Christianity. 

In her moment of deepest need Jesus will be nearest to her. Perhaps that’s not right, for he’s always nearest her. Her every-second has passed through him first, and in all her tomorrows he’s already there. But when her heart is emptied of all hope and security, Jesus will fill her as a dam breaks over a dry river bed, expanding the borders, those limits of her capacity to give and receive, moving stones, uprooting trees, till all that is left of her is a place on earth for Jesus to fill, which is what she was all along, only she’ll know it now. And so will everyone else. When his waters recede, she will be emptier than she was before and she will miss him more, and so her great perennial need will become a sign, like a thumbprint in a cookie, the One Good God in the soul of man. 

And maybe someday, if she’s discouraged, I can say:  I remember how you got here Rose, and it wasn’t by mistake. He created a spot in the world for you and it’s good, girl. It’s one of my favorites. Perhaps I’ll even have the presence of mind to quote Wendell Berry, who after all got me into this mess to begin with: “But faith is not necessarily, or not soon, a resting place. Faith puts you out on a wide river in a little boat, in the fog, in the dark. Even a man of faith knows that (as Burley Coulter used to say) we’ve all got to go through enough to kill us.”  

If in a little boat in the fog in the dark (with a fishing pole) isn’t the best way to send a graduate into the world, well I don’t know what is. Yet the ransomed will have their moorings aboard and an ever sure place to light. 

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What is our certain calling?
Blessed are we to be called to that which also fulfills our deepest longing: to have no gods before God and to love him with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. To have no higher allegiance than to God Most High, to seek no other end of all our actions but making His glory seen, and to have no deeper affection than for Christ who is our life. Whatever our lot, we have all we need to fulfill this calling through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.

And the second calling is like it: to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Ex 20:3 Matt 22:39, Luke 10:27, 1 Cor 10:31, 1 Peter 1:6-7, 2 Peter 1:3, Col 3:4, Matt 5:16

Question #3 in this remarkable Catechism by Alicia Akins you should read here.