Time for Tea

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   A group of us were talking about fasting the other day, and how important it is to be capable of giving up something, even something lovely and lawful, for a time, to give yourself to other things.

   “What do you really love?” Mrs Eva asked me.  And before I could think to stop myself and pick something else I loved a little less, I said with profound sigh and far-off look, “Afternoon tea.”

    Mrs. Mary taught me to love tea. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that if you want someone to love the truth, you must tell them a story. Well, that is what Mrs. Mary does. She’s never said anything about tea in itself— the health benefits or the history and nobility of the art, for instance. She offers no defense. She simply asks me, and asks me again and again, throughout the seasons of the years, to come in. Come for tea, Sarie, she says, and let me show you love and real comfort.

    Her idea of tea is a feast. In every way, she feeds you… in the place settings and the smells and in the stacks of books piled up everywhere around her house, I leave full. But even on days when it’s just a quick solitary cup while milking in the barn, it was Mrs. Mary who taught me to enjoy the taste of the tea itself, apart from the cream and sugar, and of the beauty of the vessel and the warm feel of it in my hand. And it was she who taught me, by giving her time, that it is not a waste of time.

    I did something uncharacteristic and remarkably grownup yesterday and looked ahead on my calendar. And— lo and behold!— today is National Hot Tea Day, in case you didn’t know. And although I’m usually at odds with government level decisions, in general and particular, I would have to say that this one sounds like a jolly good idea. So please make yourself a cup, or better yet, a pot, and have a spot with me today in honor of Mrs. Mary.  There are, indeed, days when I fast from this good thing, but it’s not this day.

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A Grocery List, A Banquet, and What Mama Always Wanted to Do

   I keep just one type of journal, which is mostly prayers and the same prayers over and over, with no juicy details or anything, and so fairly uninteresting. But occasionally I’ll write down bits of dialogue or more story-like thoughts. I’ve brought some of them here for you.

     It was a lovely year. It was a confusing year. Looking back, I can’t help but think of my Nana Betty’s oft-used words, “My, my, my! What a mess!”  But setting out on this new year, the wisdom of an old school teacher also comes to mind, “Sometimes, honey, you’ve just got to tuck your ears back and dive on in!”  So here’s to that, dear reader, because life is short and precious. 

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    “What we need is a sixteen-year old boy with a chainsaw.”

     I looked up from digging the encroaching Ginger Lily roots from the walkway. “Yeah. With no regard for his own life.”

     We sighed.

     “But they don’t make them like that anymore,” she said. “What are we going to do?”

     It is not uncommon for us to begin the new year with such bright-eyed optimism.    



    We sat on the bed in the spare room, and threw away paperwork— His, not ours, so it was easily done. Mrs. Alice had a whole conversation with herself in grunts and humphs.

     “When he asks me where this stuff is, I’m going to say, ‘I have no idea!, but what a LOT OF JUNK it was, my son!’ “



   “So, did you prepare a speech or something?”

    “Nah, I got this,” he said.

     We were on the way to a lakeside club house, just the two of us. He was the guest speaker of the banquet, and we were all dressed up.

    As he pulled into the drive, I panicked.

    “Wait! What am I supposed to do?”

    “You? You’re the franchise,” he said.

    “Oh. Of course I am. Great. What does that mean?”

    “Eat and drink as much as you possibly can, because they’re paying for it.”

    Well, he really did have it. I was so proud. He made the history of blueback herring sound fascinating, from start to finish. It was a triumph. For me, as well. You ever need someone to be the franchise, I’m your girl.


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    After planting potatoes, we mulched them with old rank hay, to keep the weeds down.  About half-way through the process I started to cry. Then I got angry and did some kicking and creative swearing. I finally worked myself into a better state of mind by the last wheel-barrow. I guess there is travail in every good thing this side of resurrection. Behind each heaping plate of mashed potatoes, there is a farmer, blowing dirt from his nose and wincing from a pinched, sunburned shoulder.



     She turned sixty-one today. I was cleaning the milking pail in the kitchen sick when something hit the glass of the window. The house is built into a hill, and so the kitchen seems to be on the main level when approached from the front, but it’s second story from the side, and third story from the back. Anyway, the window is high up there. I lifted myself onto the sink rim to look down and saw her standing there on the ground. I ran over to the round hallway window and popped it open.

     “Hey, everything okay?”

     “Yep!”

     “Did something hit the window?”

     “I threw a stick at it,” she said smiling, and pointed to the ground, where I guess the stick had landed. “I’ve always wanted to do that.”



     The end of August is our bleak midwinter. There inevitably comes that moment when the men want to sail to the Keys and the women want to cut off all their hair, that moment when everything expensive breaks and we’ve run out of spending money, and finally, that moment when Captain Dave looks down the table at us, scowling, and says, “It’s time to look for the fish.”

      Somehow we always forget that these grim words habitually proceed the actual finding of fish, the coming of Fall and the general health and welfare of the offspring of fishermen everywhere.


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     I enter the doors of Walmart only for those I love who won’t accept this fact by any other means.

     “Here’s my list,” and she handed me a little notebook page, covered back to front. “Now we’re not leaving until we get everything on it.”

     I dug for a pen. “Here, Nanny! Shampoo. It’s on your list. Here they are. Which do you want?”

     “I don’t need shampoo.”

     “But it’s on the list.”

     “Well I don’t need it.”

     We got body powder (check), cat treats (check), baby dolls for the great-grand-babies (check), Special K (check), ice cream (check), cookies, frozen pizza and a can of refried beans (not listed).

     “Butter! Here’s butter, Nanny. You need some.”

     “No I don’t.”

     “But it’s on the list… why don’t you get some just in case?”

     “Sarah. You’re driving me crazy.”



    I was with Ruby all day in the ER. Georgia came. We hovered over her a long time together, willing her eyes to open. It was like the day I searched for my favorite dog, and imagined over and over again his answering bark. You can picture it all, and how it should happen, you know. But nothing. Then just at the last, she really did open her eyes on us.

     “Ahhh!” she said in that Norwegian way, a delighted, eloquent sound.

     It was like how we will meet again one day.



   I just returned home from Tennessee. It was wonderful. But there’s no adventure as satisfying as the lifted up and swung around kind of hugs of coming home. I was profoundly glad to see them, and I was glad to see it. There are few things in this world as beautiful as the Tennessee river, all green on the banks under a dark sky, but it still didn’t give me the shivers like the sight of our turnip field.

    “The trustees of an institution are those who have forgiven it,” Andy Crouch said from the stage, and everyone scribbled it down as the room stirred with the memories of broken homes and churches. I thought of how close and how often my family has come to collapse, in all the anger and all the hurt and all the selfishness. This tangible home has been God’s grace to us, enfolding a fragile institution, a place on earth to lay our heads when they throbbed, to hold us when we couldn’t hold each other. This place has kept us long enough to see the day of reconciliation— to see my eyes, the barometer of our condition, weep, swell, recover and smile again. The pain would ease and we could reach for each other once more.

   I know it’s just a cobwebbed ceiling and mud-tracked floor. I know it could burn up tomorrow, and I’d be just fine. But I also know that I have a run-away heart, and this place with the hundreds of ravines, animal stalls and trees to fly to, has kept me here, where I have been best tested and refined. Here, where I can be faithful by showing up, to feed and clean and milk and wash and love. Maybe that’s just my story, but I’m beginning to think it’s a good one.

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A Winter Look and See

     I was told a story the other night about an elderly lady who had Alzheimer’s and would wake up every morning dead set on going to the post office, which, to her, was making continual laps down the hall, through the living room, into the kitchen and around again. But one morning, after a bath, she absolutely refused to put clothes on for her daughter, Dot, who was much distressed. Finally, defeated, Dot went into the kitchen to make coffee. So as the old lady did her laps, she saw her reflection in the hall mirror. Horrified, she came into the kitchen and said, “Dot, did you see that ugly old thing in the post office without a stitch on?!”
    
I laughed, the pained laugh of falling in a cold creek. I know it well. It is the laugh of the bright side, you know, the could-be-worse. At least she had the grace to see herself, like few of us do…only the point of recognition had passed. Sanctification, I think, at least in part, is really seeing yourself, if only for a moment, and it’s grace if you don’t like what you see.

    But then sanctification is a looking away from yourself too. In a book of prayers by Amy Carmichael, she asks for a heart at leisure from itself.  I’ve had a few of those moments, here and there, and they were my finest ones. For me they came, almost every one, out in the fields with God, as the poet said.

    We can ask to see ourselves and beyond ourselves. We can go looking in the hall mirrors and the fields for the ivy-covered doors of a secret garden, but in the end the glimpses come and go when they will, and this too, is our sanctification. But don’t let that stop you from looking. You just might flush a herd of deer bedded down in a bottom, blowing, with white flags sailing in the grey mist. Or if you go to the post office, you might see something else entirely. 

    Here’s a Winter Look and See from my world today. Thanks for stopping by!

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Ludwigia alternifolia or Seedbox 

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A lovegrass of some kind. 
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Spanish Moss from the coast

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Lady’s Thumb

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Evergreen

This day is like the road,

running away as I ride

in the back of the truck,

braced up and nursing

a sloshing cup of brandy,

    sweetened with berries.

This tree is like a birth

laid heavy on my legs,

cut down to race a season

and run a greenness,

a last-year nest falling loose

   yet telling tales

of home.

 

All around, the pines

keep long the last light

with a wind song of hail

to the road before—

behind? The road I rode

    while hauled away.

What mystery!  Bringing home

a Christmas tree;

To tell of life in death,

to die even as it tells,

as sap runs from a wound,

    as a summer-sweet cup

is emptied.

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Mrs. Ruby at Sea

    A few months ago, in the late summer, I went into the War Veterans Home and came out again with Mrs. Ruby’s suitcase. Mrs. Ruby followed behind ever so slowly, and she laughed the slowest deepest laugh you’ve ever heard, like a beautiful mother Ent. A beech tree, she would be, strong and white and golden, the last standing of a generation cut down.

    We were going to Mrs. Georgia’s house in Beaufort, South Carolina, on just a finger of solid ground in a bay called Land’s End. We made a party of six women, with three widows, Georgia, Marie and Ruby, and three single girls, Annie, Laura and myself. Six women bound by friendship and sea-changes, bound by death and life again, bound by love for the sweet green marsh and the rhythmic tide.

   We were grieving. Each felt the other’s. Sorrow was our seventh guest there in the old house. There is freedom in grief’s company, not a morbid shunning of suffering or a worship of it either, but as an honest word among many words, like love and beauty, and certainly not the last one. In this place you could let it go a while. Let it take care of itself. You could think about your friends. You could find yourself comforting them in the bearing of your sorrow. You could say, “Look at that shrimp boat!” and “How about lunch?” and you could, like Laura, laugh at something silly you read and read it out loud so they can laugh at you instead.

  In Mr. Standfast by John Buchan, one of my favorite novels, it is prophesied among a group of friends that the war they found themselves in would cost the best of them, and you know the character Peter will have to die before the end. We brought Mrs. Ruby to the sea because some such prophesy was made concerning her. The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. She was having strokes. She was sleeping too long. So she would have a holiday. She would have a long car ride down dark roads of mossy oaks, and over precarious narrow bridges. She would eat good food all the day. She would sleep in a real home. She would be surrounded by windows. She would take a shower outside, with a bird’s nest in the beam of the stall, a “million dollar shower” she would say. She would laugh her deep, slow laugh again and again at the young girls. She would see the ocean, one last time.

   One evening this autumn, Mrs. Ruby fell.

   “Well, that’s not exactly true,” she told me from the hospital bed, “It was really more of a slide.”

    Mrs Ruby broke her hip. She has been in bed for two weeks. They have done all they can. She is dying, slowly. She is dying like many do. She wakes up sometimes and tells us about the new birth. They call it her preaching, and it offends many, like that Stone of stumbling she was built into.

   “Why have you come?” she asks. And the answer is love. Her eyes light up when you say it, and not until you do. And then she points that lovely narrow finger up to the ugly drop ceiling and says, “This is how we know what love is… Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” Maybe you don’t like it and don’t want to hear it, but Mrs. Ruby doesn’t care. She is way past caring. But you will never get over her, nor will I.

   Nor will I. She is standing on the shore. She is clean from her shower. She has tasted the goodness of the earth. She is happy like always. She is laughing her laugh. She is telling us goodbye. For just a moment, her eyes opened yesterday on Mrs. Georgia. “I’m okay,” she said. Just two words laid down beside grief and pain and death. Two words from a dry mouth, sent to comfort her friend.   

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 “We have traveled this day to the bounding sea, O Lord, to the far edge of the habitable land, as to the utter end of our own measure and ability and strength…”

 Douglas McKelvey, from Every Moment Holy

Our Journey Home

 

    On this day, four years ago, I sent an email to a fellow student in an online writing class. Her name was Sarah, and she was born on August 24th, the same day as me. The class itself was somewhat of a fluke, as the teacher ran over his laptop and just sort of forgot about the whole thing, despite the considerable fee. We were both very baby writers anyway, and I was inclined to look upon this as a discouraging sign from the heavens, but she laughed it off and in an effort to salvage the experience asked: “Would you like to exchange writing prompts once a week?”

    And so we got to know each other slowly, and yet so well that it’s hard to believe four years can accomplish so much, and from so great a distance. Sarah lives in England, the land of fairytales, in a cottage in a cathedral city. True story. She comes to see me, and I have longed, especially in uncomfortable times, to run off to her, like the heroines in the Austen novels who escape to their friends by the sea or Bath, and yet the story always follows them, you know, and things get better. So would the story follow me and things get better in the city of the water meadows, where five rivers converge, and swans gather on the banks, where the evening light still rests on King Alfred’s White Horse and casts long shadows at Stonehenge, where a gentle rain hits the windowpane of the room where Sarah sits and writes to me.

    She is thinking very carefully, and loving very deeply. She is perhaps unhappy, because of these things. I have leaned very heavily on her, even from such a distance. Someone told me the other day that a single person has no household to observe as a testimony of their character. They don’t know Sarah, or this mystery of the kingdom yet, how God takes a barren woman and makes her the mother of children, how He raises the valleys and is near to the brokenhearted. But I do, and it is grace. She has kept me well. She applies the promises of God to me, and in this way especially, she loves me often more than herself.

    She is the one who introduced me to Elizabeth Goudge’s The Dean’s Watch, and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, novels that changed me. It was Sarah who sent me The Good God, by Michael Reeves, when I wasn’t sure He was and Robert Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb, when I was hungry for a feast. And it was she, the blessed girl, who gave me the poetry of Malcolm Guite. His words have been mile markers for us along the way, in pain,

These bleak and freezing seasons may mean grace

When they are memory. In time to come

When we speak truth, then they will have their place,

Telling the story of our journey home,

and comfort,

Some people say that life is just a given thing

but you and I both know by whom its lent

and that it’s right here in the dirt

where we’ve both been loved and hurt

that Love Himself has come to pitch His tent

    All this has kept us, with simple words, mindful of the beauty just beyond our reach, but not forever. Sarah came to see me a month ago today. She bravely slept in the back of my 4Runner while I drove the interstate for six hours to Franklin, Tennessee, where we sat in a crowded auditorium, and shivered together with a glimpse of the joy we will have in fullness one day soon, in these words by Andrew Peterson:

Does Jesus our Messiah hold forever those he loves? He does.

Does our God intend to dwell again with us? He does.

    I plan to walk with Sarah through the rest of our lives, and I know there will be many marked days, joyful and sad, but I’m not sure any moment in this vale will surpass the sweetness of singing with her and beside her that night. Except if it was the moment, in hectic Atlanta traffic, when I looked at her in the rearview mirror, and she winked.

    I know that our friendship is not unique. It is as ordinary as that red wheelbarrow. You know, the one that so much depends on. There are many thousands of them in this old world, many countless eyes searching through open windows, calculating the time of day across the world, wondering what a friend is doing at that moment, wishing they were there doing it too. “The words are purposes. The words are maps,” as the poet says. The words between us, since that first email four years ago, were purposed, beyond our knowing of it, to reach each other’s hearts….  and the map? The map is of our journey home.

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He Swallows the Ground

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   When I take him out of the stall and brush him, there is a trembling in his flanks. He is just a common quarter horse, a prey animal, I explain to the kids. Don’t be afraid, and yet I am still afraid, even after all these years with many horses, even after falling and getting up again.

    I lead him to the ring.  Round and round I make him go, and he obeys. He knows I don’t want to go in circles either. Make them respect you, get some of their energy out, they say. So I lunge dutifully, ignorant of his feelings toward me, but with the deepest respect for him and sure that I could never, not with anything I’ve got, reduce his energy.

   He is an oldish horse now, retired from the barrel-race ring at age three. The first glance I had of him was his massive brown rump backing out of a horse trailer in our front yard when I was twelve. Whoa, I said, and I’ve been telling him that ever since.

   We are ready to go now, and I shiver all over. He feels it, and shivers too. There is a new view of the world up here, and a new set of muscles and sinew alive to it. There is a huge amount of work that goes into sitting a horse.  If you don’t feel it at the moment, you will feel it worse, sure enough, the next day.

    I keep him reigned in. The road is difficult, and whatever his strengths, I still think better than him, anyway. I hold him sharp, reigns gathered, head collected. He submits, and I marvel anew, every time. It is a willing submission, it must be. And mine is a willing lead. I am in his mouth, as they say, and it’s true, because this is a hard world. I’m never more perceptive than in those moments, when I can hear a twig crack like a bird dog, making the calls for the both of us. It makes me glad to be a woman.

   Then we come into the clear, the Big Country, a piece of National Forest so far back the hunters can’t find it. “No country for old men,” I say and he snorts. I hold him back just for a second, then release with a “Get up!”  I don’t know whose idea he thinks it was, but I knew I had no choice. I knew it the moment I took him from the stall. Hold him back? There just ain’t no way, not on God’s green earth.

    There are few things in creation more beautiful than a horse given his head. It is not a wild strength, but a bound one, set loose, it’s the freedom within law, the exuberant life of discipline. It is also terrifying. A prey animal? Nothing seems further from the truth. He runs toward the battle. Would the call to retreat sound, I’d have to jump off and run, for he’d have none of it. He considers not the obstacles before him— holes and felled trees, creeks and gullies. Just hold on. Sometimes I must close my eyes, all the while smiling so big, it hurts.

    He slows down at last, not because he is tired, but because he is satisfied. We are in a rich field and he wants to eat. I slip down and remove his bridle. “Wingman,” I say, rubbing his neck and for a moment I feel like a child beside her pet dragon. “Good boy.”

   Then I sit on a stump close by, as if to meditate, and wait for my ankles to stop trembling.

 

The Pilgrim Soul

    It can be very hard when someone you love is losing their memory, not to lose yours too. It’s easy to only see who they are in the moment, and not who they are really, which includes who they have been and who they will be.

    My Nanny is, has always been and will always be, one of my best friends.

    In my earliest memories, I remember being sung to by my parents, separately, in different songs. I remember being able to go down the loft stairs without touching the ground. But mostly, I remember Nanny.

     I remember going to sleep at my big country house and waking up in her little city one, waking up, beside her. I remember pulling her ears while she rocked and sang to me. She sang Hush Little Baby and All the Pretty Little Horses— that was my favorite: blacks and bays, dapples and grays. I remember a jewelry box. She was showing my sister the ballerina that spun on the surface of the lake inside, but I saw it too. I remember, later, her food. Oh the glorious food, heaps of it, all the day. I remember the coffee we would drink in bed. She showed me how to pour into my saucer to cool it down. I bet it spilt all over the sheets, but I don’t remember that. I remember riding in the back of her car, little and tan, like herself, and hearing her pray, “Lord, keep this precious cargo safe.” I remember the moment I realized, all goosebumped, that she was talking about me, about me to an invisible God.

    It was Nanny, I think, who gave me the name Sarie. It was Nanny who dressed me up and brushed my hair, one hundred strokes every morning, even when I looked like Alf. It was Nanny who could tell me tales of Indian Territory, the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, of an Okie girl who left home, suddenly, for California, married a kind, but unknown soldier and lived an average, but remarkable existence of fidelity to everything she was called to.

    It was Nanny and it continued to be Nanny for a very long time.

    Her mind is fragile now. The fault line gave way when that unknown soldier died. “I know people think I’m a hard person,” she said the other day. It’s not the forgetting that’s made her so, but the remembering that she has forgotten. It’s the fear of helplessness. But I remember who loved me when I was helpless. When I needed arms and songs and food and stories and time, all the time. I remember who remembered me.

     I remember Nanny.

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In Ruins

God saw the people of Israel— and God knew.   Exodus 2:25

      I remember, while walking through the woods as a little girl, Mama used to say, “I wonder what our place will look like in a hundred, two hundred, years?”

    She taught me to know a home site, to recognize a land loved. The chimney pile may be dispersed and the well filled in, or they might’ve made home without a chimney or a well, but the plants can tell you, and the ground can tell you. Then once you’ve seen enough of them, you can feel it. You find yourself looking around for a witness. Does this sound ridiculous? But if the earth can be redeemed, why can’t it also keep meaning, and memory? How is that too much? The wonders we are sure of, that we’ve grown used to, imply a Maker of wonders, not a wardrobe of them, unless that wardrobe opens to a whole world.

    So I knew what Mama was getting at, and it made me angry, and it still does.

    I loved the broken indian pottery, the homemade bricks, the depressions in the ground, the white oaks and iris bulbs of the dead. I loved finding initials in hearts on trees, past making out. I loved loving land that was loved before I was thought of. But I loved myself too. I loved my entrance into the story, and I hoped it would change things. I loved, more than anything, and without knowing it, permanence. My six year old heart wanted to live forever. Twenty years later, it still does. My six year old heart knew this couldn’t be, so the next best thing is to have children who have children who have children who are forever faithful, right?

    “We’ll be here,” I told Mama, foot stomping. “We’ll always be here!”

     Despite growing up and getting used to disappointment, I still, in all my plans, pursue continuity. Even in writing, this is the goad: an unwillingness to let things go. While the pines are cleared on the hills to make pasture, I’ve dropped into the bottom field to plant black walnut trees, a crop I won’t live to harvest. This may be vision, but it is still my vision, and limited, at best.

      The last few months I have served outside the only abortion mill in the region, praying, pleading, present, there, where little people are dismembered. The city has never been the place for me, but now, being cursed, spit at and reviled, I hate it. “Make it, them, real to us,” my friend prays, and when the Lord answers her, I want, with all of me, to go home. There is meaning here I do not want to know or keep. There is hope only that the memory of this place will be wiped off the earth. There my Maker has shown me that I’m a stranger in a strange land. There I’m a little girl standing on broken concrete, closing her eyes for a minute, trying to remember what the valley looks like in the spring, water rushing round the fallen logs and black stones, the smell of sassafras among the ferns, the vanishing white flag of the doe come to drink, this beautiful place of mine, just twenty miles northeast from the hell surrounded by churches full of people who are happier than they should be, considering.

     The seed promise is a consistent theme throughout all of Scripture, only increasing in urgency as we turn the pages to the Gospels, and gloriously fulfilled in the coming of Christ. But fulfilled doesn’t mean done with, but made full and here with us, as He is. What hope is there for a nation that legalizes the mass murder of innocents? What hope is there for a generation of women who are merciless to their own babies? For men who despise their own seed? What has grace done for us if the abuses and wrongs we have suffered have not served to make us more gentle and just, but apathetic abusers ourselves? The ground cries out—my own beloved ground and yours, wherever that may be—and we deserve the curse of Cain, indeed, we have received it, a heritage of violence, a fugitive fate, and if we are only a slight depression in the wilderness one day, it’s more than we deserve, for it’s more than we’ve given to the least of these, our people.

     What will our place look like in a hundred, two hundred years? I don’t know anymore, Mama. With the time, I will plead for the defenseless, with the sad souls who think killing the preborn could ever make anything better. Then I will come home and plant trees.

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These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country.   Hebrews 11: 13-14

Listen Up

     Since January, I’ve spent Mondays with Mrs. Alice.

     “I wish you could have seen me when I was young!” she says.  But on Mondays she feels young again.

    I’ve learned so much about her, and about myself, living a day with her, in her kitchen and closets, driving her car, pruning her roses and ironing her pillowcases. She loves to talk and I love to listen. With her old mountain accent, every word is wise. I dodge behind a wall sometimes and jot things down in a notebook thin enough to fit in my back pocket. When I get home it seldom looks as profound as it sounded when she said it. She reminds me of someone I loved very much, what seems like a long time ago now. She doesn’t ask a great deal about me. It’s not that she doesn’t want to know, but that she doesn’t need to. In a younger person, this might seem rude and careless, but in Mrs. Alice, it’s honest perception. She can read me, as they say, like a book. This was humbling at first, but I do feel quite loved by her. It comes to me now that there are few things better in this life than a well loved book.

    We were sitting at the kitchen table, creaming corn to put up in the freezer. We had it all over the rug and in our hair. She was quiet for a time.

    “What’s the hardest thing that ever happened to you?” I asked, thinking I knew what she’d say. I’d heard her story many times. First I heard the one all people have prepared, fairly tidy and sensible: birth, marriage, babies, places, ailments. Then after she trusted me with her dinner party arrangements and delicate laundry, after she held my arthritic hands in her own, after I burned a hole in her drapes and adopted her decrepit dog, she told me more. Kikelomo, they called her in Nigeria, “whom we love to pet”. The Yoruba people took her to themselves, taught her their recipes, told her their stories, delivered her babies and named them, precious names. She told me about her work as a surgeon’s assistant, and her life as a wife and as a mother. She told me tales of the grandchildren in the portraits on the walls. She told me which ones were in trouble and which one was eligible. She told me about the Sunday School lesson and what she thought about the evening news.

    So I thought I knew the answer. She’d say God had been good, so good, to her and she would tell me about her mother’s death and her grief in leaving Africa.

   “God has been good to me, so good. Sarah…. there was a time, worse than any other. It’s a right long story.”

    Then Mrs. Alice went and told me a new thing.

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