Our Troubles Will Be Out Of Sight

It seems like yesterday Mrs. Ruby was asking me if I had a boyfriend. I was probably twenty-five. No, I said apologetically. Well don’t be in any hurry, your life will change soon enough, she said.  And though she always did have the air of a prophet about her, I remember thinking, You don’t know about me, Mrs. Ruby. I live alone in the land where nothing changes.

My first reflection on this memory was to think what a silly girl I was. I was mostly happy and this was a passing morbid thought. But the truth is, I was a deep thinker and facing reality. To know now how quickly everything did change is to only speak to the surprising wonder that sometimes falls upon this old world. 

Praying for a dear friend this morning, I asked that she would get past a heart-breaking time, then stopped myself. I had said something like that the other day to a wise woman. No, not past, she said, through. So I took back what I said before, and prayed her through this time, that such tender compassion would rain down on her and make her an even more welcome home for the weary than she was before, that there would be such a sweet deep healing inside that she would be glad for the wound, and that this surprising reversal inside herself, this good news of the Savior-King, would be surest thing in her life all her days, come what may. 

Christmas is a fragile time, as it should be. My parents house doesn’t have central heat, nor does my own house now, and so you find yourself in a coat and hat in one corner, only to strip down to your long-johns on the other side of the room. You chase the sunshine coming through the glass and lie down in its puddle while it lasts.

This is tender Christmas-time: In my memory, it is melting your house-shoes on the wood stove, huddled too close. It is running into the kitchen to hug your grandmother’s backside. She gives you a bowl of drippings because she says everyone should be as round as she is. She is soft and this sounds good. It is dancing on your grandfathers feet to Nat King Cole. It is taking great care to reposition all the nativity characters to face the baby Jesus after someone moved them around again. It is singing dramatically over the bannister, God bless the rulers of this house and let them long to reign! It is the little chocolate behind every paper window.

It is, in time, a keener awareness of familial brokenness and loneliness and the passing of these memories into shadow. It is the courage to resurrect all the good and make new traditions, the effort to stand over eighteen eggs for three hours, to make gifts with what you have, to walk in the outside world until your nose freezes over. It is now to me, the sweetest time of comfort, knowing that the Savior came as a baby to save my own baby, and that he honored the fragile mothers everywhere by needing one desperately, like the Lord of the Universe never needed anyone before or since. 

We said we wouldn’t tell anyone about the baby at first. It is nice, sometimes, to have a secret. It is much nicer, I think, to give the secret away. So the day the baby’s two-chambered heart started beating, my own heart was so full, that I went into a baby store, just to walk around for the first time, not as friend or cousin or aunt, but as mother and I told a complete stranger the news. She rejoiced. A wonderful thing has happened to you, she said, which is true. My baby is wonderful. When are you due? July, I said. My son was born in July, and out he stepped from a rack before us, embarrassed to have been a baby nine years ago. Once upon a time, on a cold rainy November morning, his little heart started beating too. He lowered his head to me, in an awkward sort of bow, and moved away, embarrassed again by such an old fashioned gesture, him, so cool in his spiked hair and Nike hoodie. He honored me, because of the baby, but not my baby.

He honored me, whether he knew it or not, because the Lord was a baby, hidden deep in a young woman’s body two thousand years ago. This Baby belongs to everyone who seeks him. He lives still to swallow up all sorrow and to usher in a new and glorious morning. 

And so wherever you are, Christmas is for you, and I wish you through it, that you would consider it and wrestle with it, and not let it pass you by, until it bless you. My dear readers, Merry Christmas. Like Gladys Herdman in my favorite Christmas story, hear me saying, HEY! Unto you a child is born! And feel the jab in your ribs, because the days are shorter than ever before and the nights are too long without the gospel and sometimes even with it, but not for long, not forever.

Loves Me Like a Rock

My mama worked full time when I was growing up, as a forest ranger for the Corps of Engineers. Every other Friday she had the day off and she would be at our school, volunteering for the teachers, filing paperwork in the office or making copies for the classrooms. I know this was the last thing she wanted to do, but she knew that when you do this your children get treated better. It’s just the truth. She couldn’t be a PTO mom, but she would do what she could to be present in our lives.

With both our parents still working, my sister and I homeschooled ourselves through high-school. We loved it and learned so much more than we would have otherwise. My sister is a homeschool mom now, and I expect, given the chance, I will become one too. But in the human heart, there is always a tendency to imagine your choices reflect a superiority of self. I heard a mother say once, “I homeschool my children because I love them.” We all say things in ways we don’t mean, and if she heard herself, she’d probably take it back.

Having grown up, and seen both sides now, all kinds of moms and ways of rearing, it seems to me that motherhood, like the Christian life, is chiefly a matter of the heart. There is no substitute, and no thwarting, real love, but this you will find in the most unexpected places, and sometimes not where it should be. As the great Rich Mullins said, there’s a wideness in God’s mercy I cannot find in my own. He is a designer, after all, not a manufacturer. 

My mama was perfect for me. She was stretched thin. She would wake up singing the Steven Curtis Chapman song well the day is just begun and I’m already running late… but she woke up singing. She would bring me coffee and cinnamon sugar toast in bed, then she would spank me with the hairbrush for refusing to brush my teeth. She taught us all the plants and trees of the forest and to revere our grandparents. She didn’t tell us Santa Claus was real, but she didn’t say he wasn’t either. She read out-loud to us as often as she could, and she didn’t pile ambition or expectation on us or ever wanted us to be especially good at anything, but she loved what ever small thing we accomplished. She never told me I was beautiful, but she would put the fear of God in me if I was unkind. She asked for my forgiveness more than she encouraged me to ask for it from others. She wasn’t better than your mother, at least that’s certainly not what I’m here to say. But she, in all her strengths and faults, even in all the TV dinners and episodes of Murder She Wrote, was perfectly suited to mother me, God helping her. 

I called her this very morning, too sick to lift my head. She walked over in the 28 degrees with a plate of eggs and potatoes and cup of weak coffee. She sat me up in the oversized chair, put no pressure on my day, and told me to stay inside awhile and write, of all things.

There was a short period of time when I thought growing up meant doing without your mother, but now that I am one, however fragile, I see that she will always be giving herself to me, for as long as she can, because this is what she was made to do. She will receive her greatest joy in this, which is good, because I will continually need it. I think of my friends who have lived many years without mothers of their own, and I marvel at their strength and understand more their sorrow, and I know they would say it is a good thing to be able to live without, but it is a better thing to see what you have, while you have it, and be intensely grateful for it. I feel that way this morning. I know she will read this, so, Thank you Mama. You have been a wonderful mother, a true friend and surely the world’s finest neighbor, and you see I still, sometimes, listen and do just as you say. 

A Few of My Favorite Things

I was greatly, happily, distracted this year. I didn’t read the news at all and I didn’t go looking much for anything. Most everything that brought me joy jumped in my face, because it simply had too. It felt like a very old fashioned year, because the people in my life alone occupied my thoughts, but some of these things are indeed shareable, and so I have come to share them. 

My dear friend Annie, creator of my own mule above, has kept me up-to-date on her remarkable work, and you can see what she has for sale here. If you like cowboys, you will love her shop, and if you don’t, well why not?

Annie was one of my bridesmaids. I hadn’t seen my fiance for many days before the ceremony, and I, sequestered in a separate house from everyone, was anxious to know what was going on. Most everyone teased me saying things like, No I haven’t seen Andrew anywhere or Yeah, I saw him and he looked real worried. But Annie would come to my side and tell me everything, describing it perfectly and if she didn’t tell the whole truth, she only made it sound better than reality, which is her nature and the most likable fault you ever will find on this earth. She also held my dress up during my long walk through the woods and picked many a Sweetgum ball and pinecone out gently, with as much care as she puts into her art. 

Someone else I want you to see is Ruth. She is a long best friend and neighbor, and makes the most exquisite patterns here: http://redearthdesignstudio.com. If you knit or crochet or know someone who does, you ought to see these. She is brilliant and the most committed craftsman(woman?) I know. She was also a bridesmaid and she sang for the ceremony, which is how I always imagined it would be. 

And finally, my friend Kimberly, though a busy mom of seven, farmer and butcher (yep, that’s right!) has made time in her life for art again, which gives me hope. She does paintings on commission and sells her work here: https://kimberlybouchersart.com  I mail many cards and her bird series have been my favorites this year. I used to think women were prettiest in their twenties, but Kimberly is one of the many women who have shown me different. There is something about an honest woman in her forties, wise and tender-hearted, become who she was meant to be by love, necessity and gifting, that is, I think now, more lovely still. This also gives me hope as I find gray hairs and am now unable to button my jeans.

Unlike previous years, there were only a few books that could hold me sufficiently to be remembered, but that just made them all the more better. I list them at the bottom with a couple of my favorite lines. 

I know this was a hard year for the whole world, with my friends in Kenya and the UK feeling the same sort of confusion and fear as I did. I have nothing new to say about these things, except this:

I called the local nursery this morning to ask if they had dogwood trees. “Yes,” the old man said, “pink and white.” 

“And you’re still open in the cold?” I asked. 

“Yes, ma’am. You see, what’s wrong with public America is they don’t plant in the wintertime. Public America doesn’t think about dogwoods until they see them in the spring.”

“Alright,” I said, “what about cypress trees?”

“Yes, ma’am we have those. We have big ones mostly, because public America doesn’t have the time or the inclination to wait for a d— thing.”

I’m on the same page as this old man, and my advice is: Don’t be like public America, friends. Buy young trees, plant in the wintertime and be thinking about dogwoods. You can read into this what you like, but I mean it quite literally, as he did.

from Upside Down Spirituality by Chad Bird:

On 1 Corinthians 13, Lovely, poetic words, right? Almost hymn like in tone. But why is love patient? Because it often endures the beloved behaving stupidly and selfishly. Why is love kind? Because it suffers unkindness and meanness from the one loved. Why does it not boast? Because love often weathers humiliation from the very one to whom its heart is devoted. Why does it keep no record of wrongs? Because if it did, there would be little time for anything but score-keeping and sin-tallying. This chapter on love is also the quintessential chapter on humanity’s lovelessness.

We step into the vocations of husband and wife; we don’t create them, shape them, or redefine them according to our whims and preferences. And thank God we don’t. We’d make a terribly defective product…. When we marry, we step inside an ancient, divine structure that’s bigger and older and more stable than our love or feelings or commitment. It’s also an ideal place, this divine house of marriage, to be a blessed school for sinners.

From Handle With Care, by Lore Wilbert:

To love in this way, to touch, is to risk brokenness, making mistakes, getting it wrong. But, as I said in the beginning of this book, there is a gospel for that. We cannot live lightly on this earth, but must tend the unruly garden we’ve been given– others and ourselves.

As I let the bread settle on my tongue and let the wine pool around it, I remember… I am just this body, mind, and heart right now and I am not the Christ. But I have the Christ…

From So Brave, Young and Handsome, by Leif Enger:

You are no failure on a river. The water moves regardless- for all it cares, you might be a minnow or a tadpole, a turtle on a beavered log. You might be nothing at all.

Why was I a slave to sentiment when it failed me so reliably?

And from Virgil Wander, by the same:

His merriment was unhitched from his success.

So Rune fell in love– ‘like rolling downhill’ was his tender confession.

Reader, I Married Him

A couple years ago a man walked away from my life saying it was unlikely that I would receive another offer of marriage. Although this reminds all the Austen fans of the artless Mr. Collins, I must admit this man was wise in many ways, and what he said was absolutely true. If there was a man in the world for me, there was only one. Who could say where he might be and what he might be doing? 

But just a year later I stood in the small-town square of Abbeville, facing him. “So how do you want to go about this?” he was asking me. I had no clue. “You tell me,” I said. So we went fishing. We fished in every place fish were and some where they weren’t. When it turned colder, we went hunting. For deer, and then ducks. This was last Autumn, and we are married now. We caught 12 river cats on set-lines on our honeymoon, a bushel of blue crabs, and a flounder. 

The other day we were sitting in a deer stand together. I was eating a bowl of stew, and he thought this was crazy but he wanted some. A text came in from an acquaintance, asking the question, “How did you choose your husband? What qualities should I look for?” I passed it to him to read and he whispered out of the corner of his mouth, “You don’t choose a husband.” 

I didn’t choose Andrew. He might think he chose me, but it was really a divine conspiracy. He went from being a man I didn’t know, to the man I was ready to marry, in a very short period of time. I realize I still don’t know him very well, though I wake beside him. I wanted to marry a Christian and a kind man. I wanted to marry a man who wanted to marry me. Simple, right? Impossible. This was a job for my Maker, but it had been a long time since I mustered the faith to ask him. I had grown tired of asking, and the likelihood of him saying no was too painful and I felt like I just needed to move on. I didn’t have much hope. When the thought was pressing I would pray something like, God you see me, you know me. Yes, he did and he does. He gave me what I knew I needed and what I didn’t know I wanted, and, I suspect, even more I haven’t discovered yet. 

Yes, he knew me. He knew I would love a man who would make cane poles and cry like a hawk and moo better than an actual cow, who would take me into the woods and the swamp and try to describe the heart-rush at the sound of ducks flying overhead, who would laugh at me and teach me things and who I would hear whistling from a long way off, who would count out all 86 of the watermelon seeds he carefully spit out and plant them, who would make me nervous every day, who would read aloud to me and sing along to every song on every radio station, who would fall asleep instantly, even in a deer stand, and wake up to point out the buck I completely missed in all my steady looking. I didn’t know myself alone. I didn’t know what I would love, and what simple, even silly, things would delight me in a normal guy, being himself. 

All these months I have found our love story difficult to write about. Sad tales are generally accepted, but when you share joy it is likely that someone somewhere might be hurt by it, especially in a year marked by such sweeping stress. We are all secretly afraid that there might not be enough happiness to go around, and that we will perpetually be that kid that gets left behind. I know, because I’ve felt that way myself. It stings, and I don’t want even one reader to feel it. It would be better, I think, not to write at all. But then I remember the power of stories, even love stories, in my own life, and how they gave me hope and taught me to see myself as caught up in something big, even an adventure. As Eugene Peterson said, We enter a world we didn’t create. We grow into a life already provided fo us…. We must be aware that we are living in the middle of a story that was already begun and will be concluded by another.

You can’t be left out of this story. If these words find you hurting, I hope you can believe at least that you are a beloved part of His good creation, and if you can’t, I recommend going fishing. They say young anglers love new rivers the way they love the rest of their lives, and I think there is little on this earth that lands hope in deep down things like casting out a line, but hey, maybe that’s just me. Maybe that’s just us.

Come Rain or Come Shine

Growing up, girls get a lot of marriage advice. Don’t settle. Be patient. Pay attention to the way he treats his mother. You’ll attract what you expect. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. All that’s true. Don’t marry for money. True as well, though not the huge problem we thought it would be.

One I often got was, Don’t marry someone expecting them to change. But I have come to see this, at best, as a half-truth. You could say more truthfully, Marry someone expecting them to undergo a great sea-change, as you will, no doubt, yourself. For there is more to be remembered in us than can be seen, and more to come than we are comfortable imagining. 

I changed the minute I met the man I’ll marry soon. I’ve changed since that time, and I will change still, if God is gracious. He is changing too. This might seem terrifying if you are paying any attention. I have heard of systems of courtship that try to nail the specimens down to a board, all but torturing confessions out of each other: sins, gifts, strengths, weaknesses, insecurities, personality type, political position, denomination, baptismal stance, distinguishing scars and marks, and how you will respond in every theoretical situation under the sun. 

Some of you may have had all this down before marriage, but honey, not me. And even if I could know truly what my strengths are today, would they be the same in ten years? 

I have no distinguishing scars, but please, just give me time.

I was talking to a friend the other day who was going through medical school with her husband, planning to become a doctor as well, when suddenly, she changed. She decided she wanted children. So she quit school and they moved closer to extended family. Now she’s spending her days remodeling an old house. She sent me a picture of freshly painted green kitchen cabinets. I didn’t know I was good at this, she said in all seriousness. She is not the same woman her husband married, but he’s never seemed happier. He didn’t seem like the wanting-a-housewife type. He didn’t marry her expecting a change. But somehow, somewhere, they did. Who changed first? Or maybe the one-flesh thing really works like it should sometimes. 

This doesn’t mean that you wake up one morning with a different person, but rather that we are more than our current opinions and strengths, and that God’s plan will expand our narrow confines and enlarge our hearts, and that Christian marriage not only has the power to withstand this, but will even cause these changes, as you are seen so completely by someone and someone who loves you. 

As Mike Mason writes, in The Mystery of Marriage,

This is what makes marriage such a thrilling enterprise: that it has power, much more than other more obviously disruptive forces, to change the entire course of a life. Some people go into marriage thinking that they will not have to change much, or perhaps only a little bit along the lines that are perfectly foreseeable and within their control. Such people are in for a rough ride. Then the terrifying and inexorable process of change sets in, they dig in their heels and refuse to budge, and the ensuing tug-of-war wreaks havoc in every department of their previously comfortable existence. 

Marriage, even under the very best of circumstances is a crisis— one of the major crises of life— and it is a dangerous thing not to be aware of this. Whether it turns out to be a healthy, challenging, and constructive crisis, or a dangerous nightmare, depends largely upon how willing the partners are to be changed, how malleable they are…. So be prepared for change! Be prepared for the most sweeping and revolutionary reforms of a lifetime.”

So if you, dear old reader, would like to tell me something about marriage, let me hear it and now’s your chance, for in a month to the day, beside a duck pond in Orangeburg, South Carolina, I won’t ever be the same again.

Remember This

Here are a few coherent scraps from my journal. This is a lazy way to write, but it’s all I have for now. I have heard from more of you, my readers, folks I’ve never even met, lately, than ever before. You’ve told me in many ways to not be afraid but simply write what I’ve known and share it. So here I come, having been called for, and I thank you.

———————

The last time we went to Dairy Queen was in February. The newscasters on the TV were on about already failed New Year’s resolutions. I asked him if he made any. No, not this year. This was not because of his age— this man learned to read Greek and Hebrew, to spin wooden bowls and play the piano, all late into his retirement. It was because he’d lost her, and he couldn’t bring himself to get excited about anything. Her funeral was the finest I’ve ever seen. It’s a noble thing to say in lieu of flowers make a donation, but there is nothing wrong in saying bring all the flowers, spend all you’ve got. Ten thousand pink roses we will lay at her feet and it will not be enough. Send them anyway. 

“Have you?” He asked, “made any resolutions?”

“No,” I said, “But… I don’t know…. but… but this may be the year I get married.”

He looked up and wiped his mouth.

“I can remember the exact moment and place when I had that thought,” he said, and he smiled that silly smile I’d been smiling myself. 

“Alice would’ve loved this,” he said. I could see he was loving it too. Was he loving it on his own, or was it the thought of her loving it? After sixty-five years of marriage, who could separate the one from the other?

I saw him today for the first time in many months. 

“Well,” he said, “we survived.” He held my left hand and looked at it. “Tell me, what is his name? But first I will sit down. I am sheltering in place.”

————————

While I was driving, I asked her for marriage advice, repeating the question many times and pointing to my engagement ring. 

She scoffed. “Marriage advice? Why would I need marriage advice? Ha!” 

“No, Nana,” I said, “for me! Advice for me,” pointing to my chest, “from you”, to hers.

“Oh! You want my advice?” And she laughed as if that was just as utterly ridiculous. 

“Well be good to each other. Help each other, you know; let him help you, help him. Go to church together… Well what did everyone else tell you?”

“You’re the first person I’ve asked.” 

“Oh really?” She liked that and with new authority she added: “When you go for a walk, he should go with you.” 

She always did worry about my walks. 

“Yeah, I like him a lot. And you know what else,” she went on, “he’s real good lookin’.” 

She had made this observation before about various men and I always found it extremely irrelevant, but this time it came down like the stone tablets for the chosen people and I, stopping reverently at a light, said, “Praise the Lord!”

——————

The baby was born last night. He’s a beautiful child, dark and delicate. I must write down the details of the labor progress for the paperwork, but I know it will look so insufficient on the form. They will ask with every entry for the mother’s reaction. If I tell the truth they won’t believe me. Laughing, smiling, soft to the touch the whole time. How will she remember this? Like a dream, I expect, that she only hoped to live, that perhaps she lived because she hoped to dream it. 

We walked through the peach field together early in the evening. We used to skip lunch in middle school and walk around in circles on the pavement, aimless, silly. We are still silly, but not aimless. We have not received an aimless grace. His mercy hit us squarely, overwhelmingly, like the whirlwind of Job. Perhaps we did not grow up to be great women, but we are happy women, which was really all we wanted. Her third child was coming gently and peacefully. They had named him Shepherd. “It’s like a blind date,” she said walking, “He’s coming to stay, and I have no idea who he is.”

In January I wrote the word Eucatastrophe down on a scrap of paper and propped it up on my desk. A sudden turn of good events, it means, which ensures the protagonist does not meet some very probable doom. It was with barely a mustard seed of belief that I wrote it down. Really I just liked the way it looked on paper. I didn’t name it and claim it. I didn’t presume to pray for it. I was, in fact, avoiding it personally. 

She held his skin to hers and cut the cord connecting their bodies. She kissed his face. She recognized him as not her own, as a gift she did not deserve and could not grasp, as a man who might up and join the war some day. She recognized him as her own, as that same man, at last, come home to rest. We laugh that it’s a good thing we can’t remember being born, but perhaps we do— every time we wonder if we’ll be accepted, every time we’re relieved to be loved. 

How will she remember this? I think she will tell her grandchildren about it and they will think the story grew in the telling. They will ask their grandfather and he will say, “All that is true and there was pizza too.” They may ask me and I will say, “Shepherd was a beautiful baby, born on a magical night in a log cabin in a peach field in the year the world fell to pieces. The year I was outrageously happy. The year of Eucatastrophe.” Perhaps I will write the word down on a slip of paper with my shaky hand and it will sit on some desk to look down on the unsuspecting world. 

IMG_2209

She Waits

She wrote to me the other day. I have sent her letters all her life, but this is the first one I remember receiving. Dear Sarie, she said, I love and miss you so much I look forward to hugging you when all this is over could you pray for me to have patience. It was spelled pashants, but I knew what she meant. She didn’t mean to be clever in her run-on sentence, but it was perfect. It was her voice, and I heard it. 

When I sit at my desk in the evening I often think of her. She has older parents, as I do, and I wonder if her nights feel long. I hope she isn’t watching too much TV. I imagine her listening to music in her room. It took me a long time to learn to be alone, and she is younger than I was. I would sometimes listen to sad songs and cry. This felt meaningful. I can’t picture her crying, though. She might be writing in a journal with a lock on it. About a year ago, she grew out of my clothes and discovered she could pick me up and this became the prime feature of her hugs. Nothing is required from me but a willingness to be restrained and suspended in the air until everyone can see. “Hold me!” was her constant plea as a toddler, and once on my hip she would reach for my hand. “I’ll be Fred, you be Ginger,” she’d say and we’d twirl to Swing Time. When I finally showed her the 1936 movie by that name, she decided, you know what, she’d rather be Ginger. 

She has had unique challenges in her young life, and has been called many things. She sorts through them, like the weekly pile of dirty clothes: where she came from, who she was and is now, what she has and doesn’t have, what’s wrong with her and why and what they say it means. They don’t come clean in the wash, and she wears them again and again. But she knows she is loved. She knows how to cook a fine dinner and make a strong cup of tea. She knows how to welcome a person well, how to be comfortable in a nursing home, how to watch babies, how to clean a horse stall, how to dance a (sort of) waltz in swing time and how to write a good and honest letter. She’s only thirteen and she’s an enthusiast in life, which I think is the chief end of education. I’d say she’s doing alright. 

I know how to pray for patience, though granted, this is a poor sort of accomplishment. She thinks that because I do not jump up and down and talk too loud and fast, I have the patience she lacks. She is the little sister, the only one left in the world who doesn’t see my faults: how I long for assurance and meaning and answers, and go after them like a bat out of hell. Yet I’ve been told to live in the questions. I’ve been told in a hundred ways by as many people to be patient. I used to think I just had more love and joy and faithfulness than patience, but I don’t think it works like that now. If you really loved someone, you’d be willing to slow down for him, just like walking with your grandfather. If you really loved something, you’d be careful to learn it, long to hold it and slow to lose it. You could take in a lot of uncertainty and fold the seasons away and let the time change you and the world around you, if you really loved.

Love is patient. Love is kind. Every night I need to come home to love like this. Kipling says in his famous poem that if you can wait and not be tired of waiting, you’ll be a man, but I never wanted to be a man and in all her make-believe, neither did she. But I believe God has a soft pillow for women who wait. So I pray for her, not so much to have patience, but to see the patience she’s been shown, like a friend after a long absence, to hug it to her heart and suspend it in the air, as the prime feature of her life, so that everyone can see.

So I wrote her back in the quiet of the dark house. I reminded her to look for ways to be constructive, to make herself useful, to read books and to garden. This is the advice I have for all humanity. I told her I love her.  

We spoke today. 

“Did you get my letter?” she asked, “ I was hoping you’d write back.”

“I did.”

“When?”

“That night.”

“And you mailed it…”

“The next morning.”

“So… when will I get it?”

“Well we are on the same route, but I told the postman to take it slow, because we were asking God himself to give you patience.” 

I heard a groan, and something like a size eight and a half foot, bruising the earth below.

5488FADA-E990-4884-B47C-05EA72B06624

The World She Knew

painting 11

My grandmother used to tutor struggling students at my elementary school. She wasn’t trained in this. She wasn’t trained in anything officially. She had just been a young army wife and mother, but she could sit for hours with a child while he sounded out the letters in Dick and Jane, which is a skill beyond the highest education. She would pass me in the hall and wink at me, and sometimes she’d say, “Hey Baby Sally!” and all the kids would say, “That’s your grandmother!” 

It makes me proud to know I was never once ashamed of my grandparents. There is no reason why I should’ve been, but kids can be all sorts of unreasonable. 

Every year, in every grade, the teachers would ask for professionals to come into the class and talk to the children about who they were and what they did. There was the firefighter, the doctor, the lawyer, and the prison-guard who did a wonderful job convincing us to choose some other profession. But every year my grandmother would also come, as the old person. She would tell us about growing up in Indian Territory, Oklahoma, during the dustbowl and Great Depression, about using the Sears and Roebuck catalog as toilet paper in the outhouse, drawing water from the well and keeping milk in the spring. She would tell us about running to the storm cellar during a tornado and her brother striking a match in the dark to reveal hundreds of frogs all around them. About the neighbors who bore each other’s burdens. About the hobos and cowboys and damn government workers. Babies were born at home, and graves were dug out back. She told the truth. Polio, Tetanus, Rabies, Tuberculosis. She made living sound risky— but worth it. I remember, what was so impressive to us all, was that she made it. There standing before us was a woman who survived. And with all her own teeth too!  But she loved and was loved by many who didn’t. This was a possibility we weren’t prepared for. 

When one of the other speakers walked out, we would cherish inflated ideas about our futures and exchange high ideals of life as autonomous adults who nobly saved the world in our power suits. A marine biologist gets to swim with dolphins, we thought, and an archeologist brushes a dinosaur skeleton in a cute safari outfit. We could dream and then we could move on to swapping notes and lunchables. 

But when my grandmother left the room, I believe I was not alone in feeling something else. There was no class for what she went through. We didn’t believe we would ever experience anything like the antiquated life she knew, where people mostly stayed home and didn’t have enough toilet paper, where there wasn’t tons of meat in the store and a good neighbor was the finest asset, but we knew we would get old, if we were lucky, and that beautiful and terrible things would come to us, just being alive. My little grandmother would laugh and walk out the heavy door, leaving twenty ten-year-olds quiet in their cooling skin. 

I haven’t thought about those kids in awhile. One is still my good friend. One is in jail, though not as a guard. As far as I know, we are all still alive, and so is my grandmother. 

I went to see her this morning. We sat in her backyard and told each other all the old stories. I asked her if she had any advice for me, about anything. She said, “What would your grandfather say?” which is an answer she would’ve never given when he was alive. I laughed, because I remember what he said. Days before he died, I asked him. He called me close, and closer and then he said, “You got to turn things right to tighten them and left to loosen them. Don’t forget.” 

A Secret in Trouble, The Spice of Life and What the Jug Might Say At Last

     Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave— that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing. 

     These are some of my favorite words from a favorite novel: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. I find them in my car and in my pockets and in broken pieces throughout old journals. I love that idea of a prevenient courage, a courage waiting for me, already there, ahead of me. It works on me— maybe like a placebo, but effectual all the same.

     On Friday mornings I stand outside our abortion mill and last week a lady pulled up beside me and rolled down her window. I told her why I was there and asked if I could help her. I’m no street evangelist, and I’m sure there are many ways things can happen, but in the two years I have stood in that place, I have come to recognize the prevenient grace in a face. She looked at me honest. She said I already have a baby. I could see that baby sleeping in a carseat. You already have two babies, I said. We talked for a long time, and in the end I asked her what she needed from me. I told her all the things we could do. But she didn’t need anything. This is normal. What she asked God for was a sign, and He gave it. It was waiting on her. What I asked God for was courage, and maybe she did too, because He had it waiting for us there on the street— in the face of one another, we both found courage— me to stay in the hard place and her to leave it. 

     Precious things have been put into our hands, the words go, and to do nothing with them is to do great harm. I guess we all have to reckon with this in different ways, according to what we’ve been given. Sometimes what I have in my hands seems too ordinary to write about, too light and trite, and perhaps uninteresting. But if you thought that, you wouldn’t be here, would you?  So here’s a wee bit from the writing-life:

IMG_1215


     I have a drawer in my desk and in the drawer there is a box and in the box there are treasures. There is a polished rock and an acorn cap, a feather, a buckeye, a chestnut, an arrowhead, wax stubs, rubber worms and a box of matches. I have found that when nothing else can satisfy a kid, this box can. My desk itself, with all its cubbies and bird-nests, is like magic, but the box in the drawer is the panacea for all nap deprived-children glittering in its virgin polythene. 

     But normally I have girls. Sally and Adah will look over this box for a long time, but Otey is a boy. Otey is all boy. And before I knew it, Otey had struck a match. 

      Before a whole room of people that little kid in my lap, under my care, struck a match. I supervised the careless handling of the cardinal rules of wisdom: Do not take candy from strangers. Do not run with scissors. Do not stand in a swivel chair. And above all, do not play with matches. I utterly failed the kid. 

     There was a great howling. The good Mama was brought forth, and she comforted him and she comforted me. We shed great tears, produced Snoopy bandaids and tried everything we could to quiet him. But no. That was it. He had gone too long without sleep, and nothing would do but go home right this very minute. It is essential, in parenting, to delay right this very minute just long enough for it to look like your idea. It is a duty of the hostess, especially if she is to blame, to help in this cause. So I looked around in my shame and landed on a deer call, the kind you blow. This one has four holes and every one makes a different sound.

     Which brings me to why I’m sharing this with you, dear reader. It may be that you, too, will fail someone as I did that night. It may be that you’ve said everything you possibly can and tried all the good and clever things to no avail. When that moment comes, take a deep breath and blow through every one of those holes in that deer call, then pass it around for everyone to try. It’s only $29.99 at Cabela’s, and you won’t regret it.IMG_0192


 

Every Wednesday morning I take my grandmother to Kroger. Every time she buys the same donut, cookies, 1% milk, bottled water and Cheetos. Every time she smells— just smells— the cantaloupes. Every time she asks the employee stocking the shelf why they don’t have Del Monte pear halves. Every time he says he doesn’t like pears. Every time I buy something unexpected, like bunches of tulips or jackfruit or exotic beer, as a gentle shock to her system and to keep myself from slipping into madness.

     Every Monday I cook for a widower and his bachelor son. Today, while the first was reading, the second sat at the kitchen table and told me all the things he didn’t like to eat and they were legion, and they were, very matter of factly, just about everything I had cooked lately.

     The older man walked into the room then, and I, wanting an ally asked him boldly what he thought about my cooking, and he said: Do you know Dot Phillips? I did know Dot Phillips. She’s a beautiful old lady and she has a wild look in her eyes and sometimes she disappears from church and the world entirely, causing everyone considerable trouble.

     “Well Dot Phillips,” he said, “Used to invite folks for dinner quite a lot and she would always cook something unusual, something she’d never tried before, or something she didn’t even have a recipe for.” He cleared his throat. “I always told Alice: Alice, somebody needs to tell Dot that men just like meat and potatoes.” He wiped his nose with a handkerchief and turned to leave. “And she cut her onions too big.”

     Reader, I also cut my onions too big. The bachelor-son laughed at my face and went into his room to listen to Rush Limbaugh, who is undeniably invariable. But today I was happy, and you could have stolen my lunch money. I washed the sink full of pots and almost burnt the cookies daydreaming about Dot Phillips, coming into the Baptist church social, long AWOL, little arms full of tulips, jackfruit and exotic beer.

      Last year I learned some things, and maybe this year I’ll learn that I am no enchanted Lifter of Ruts, and men just like meat and potatoes. Or maybe this is the year Dot Phillips and I will finally shock their systems into joie de vivre. Stay tuned! 

IMG_1125


 

    I am a man who has hoped, in time, that his life, when poured out at the end would say, “Good-good-good-good-good!” like a gallon jug of the prime local spirit. 

     I’ve read Jayber Crow so many times now that when these words came to me in the night I got up and found them easily in the full moon shining on my desk. I have hoped for the same thing. Life is nothing but decisions, I heard an old man say and I have had good reason lately to consider mine carefully and like never before. 

   In the face of wonderful things, I have found myself disbelieving the kindness of God, just waiting for the yeah but, the thread to snap and the sword to fall, because I do not deserve a happier ending than anyone else. Concerning marriage, especially, there seems to always be an ominous dark cloud in the silver lining. Everyone talks about the cross in marriage, the sacrifice, the laying it down, the letting it roll. A Catholic friend, concerning a marital dispute, said she took her will in the mundane matter and offered it up for souls, which is what I plan to do with mine, for it sounds altogether more worthwhile and valiant, don’t you think? Never mind the bad smell that would come to those poor (lost?) souls from the burning sacrifice of my opinion. 

    But I know all they’re saying is true. I know it’s hard, truly, I do. I grew up in this world, after all, where even the idylls of the screen are shattered with broken promises. I grew up listening to country music, full of fires gone out. I was told I could be anything I wanted and I invented wild dreams to satisfy them, but all I wanted, really, was to be happy. I grew up and learned, as we all do, that my future was limited and that happiness would depend largely, as C.S. Lewis said, on the character of those I live with, and that I cannot alter their characters. I grew up watching the rise and fall of many couples. I grew up in a normal family. And you know what? I grew up ready to take it on. 

   We’re like fighters studying the undefeated opponent, in all the sad mess of broken ribs and cut eyes and tap outs, and still climbing into the ring. You know that you are no better than anyone else. You know it may devastate you. But there is some deep down dauntless whisper inside that says but maybe not. Maybe not me, maybe not him, maybe not this time and this is what picks up and moves—of all things—your body. Your words, your touch and your time.

   For our fears cannot out-wrangle our hope. We cannot help but think that if our futures are limited, and our happiness is limited, so also is our trouble. If a thing like marriage can go to hell, perhaps it could go the other way.

     In the back of an old journal I have written this quote from another Wendell Berry novel. It’s also about the character of the bachelor, Jayber Crow, and it says:  Jayber always finds himself taking up the defensive of marriage. Not so much the defense of any particular marriage…. But of marriage itself, of what has come to be, for him, a kind of last ditch holy of holies: the possibility that two people might care for each other and know each other better than enemies, and better than strangers happening to be alive at the same time in the same town; and that, with a man and a woman, this craving and knowing might be made by intention, and in the consciousness of all it is, and of all it might be, and of all that threatens it. At these times it seems to Jayber that of all men in Port William, he’s the most married- not in marriage, but to this ideal of marriage. He is bound in this way, as he is bound, beyond friendships and his friends, to an ideal of friendship.

    And so I find myself taking up the defense of this institution, which for all it’s many deaths still survives and will live forever. In the meantime, it’s a comfort to know my fear is not infallible, sure or unfailing. It’s not the way, the truth or the life. But it is something I have to live with. If I could offer it up for souls, I would, but surely they would give it back.

   My grandmothers have forgotten more about marriage than I know today. I’m afraid of all I don’t know, and I’m afraid of never finding out. I’m afraid of not being good enough and of not having the good I long for. I’m afraid of all that threatens what is good. But here’s what I know: I know that God made marriage. I know I’m a sinner, and if there is something good inside of me, He poured it in. I know that I hate to hurt just as much as I hate to be hurt and so I can love while trusting myself to be loved. That’s a lot to live on, but there is more.

   I know my life, when poured out, will say, “Good-good-good-good-good!” but it won’t, in the end, be my own good, or even the good I have known, but the burning-sweet goodness of the Lord. 

IMG_0207

 

 

January Poem

When Daddy worked shifts
And I couldn’t sleep
I would sneak into her room
And wait beside the bed.
The floor was cold on my feet.
Baby, she said, come here
And I’d climb into the sheets
And ask her what to dream.
She would say
Red roses and yellow balloons.
I was a turner and a kicker
And a talker and a spinner
But when Mama held me
I was still.

Sometimes now the steps
Will creak and she will say
I cannot sleep
So I roll over to the edge
To squeeze us in the little bed
And she climbs under the sheets
Feet cold from the floor in my room.
She’s a watcher and a schemer
And a talker and a dreamer
But when I hold her
She is still
And the stars are like yellow balloons.