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. 


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.”


“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.


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:


     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! 



    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. 




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.

For the Time Being

I hope you have adventures, she said, not kindly but with an edge, as if to say: I hope you do something better with your life than this. The dying man in the bed looked long at me and shook his head. Don’t leave me alone, he said, when she was gone.

Last month my friend Sarah sent me the article On Living, by Alan Noble. I haven’t shared other writings here before as this place is a test plot for my own words, and I know if you are kind and slow enough to read here you are a Reader and surely reading elsewhere already. This piece, though. Please read it. I have had friends in life, old and young, who have come to a time when their existence is all they have to give, and very seldom do they want to go on giving day by day. But it is true what he says: You need to know that your being in the world is a witness. 

Recently a man explained to me patiently that abortion is a better option than food stamps and foster care, because those kids won’t grow up to be anything worthwhile anyway. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that’s a lie, but I don’t mind saying it again. One of my best friends was a baby like this. She grew up homeless and addicted to every hurtful thing. When she wasn’t stealing, she was a burden on the system. She has homemade tattoos, ugly scars, shot-out veins and decades of stories you wouldn’t want to hear too late at night, but even in the gutters, with every fast beat of her heart, every knife fight and cold night, her life testified of God’s grace. Now as a wife and mother, even on her best days, she’ll tell you that’s what it’s still about. 

I often go hunting and what is required is a willingness to be still and quiet and alone for many hours. You become like the sycamore and the cattails. You learn where the wood duck sleeps and how many of their young survived. You know the trail of the beetle across the water, the swirl of the fish and the dip of the kingfisher. You have seen the fog come running, like a white ghost whistled for. You are sometimes cold and lost and you are always unnecessary. This is in fact, the very key. You are nothing in the world but a creature capable of being what you were made for: a seer, a waiter, a listener, a little keeper of the peace and little piece of the kept. Your being in this world is a witness. As the White-throated Sparrow sings O Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody, grace testifies through you simply in the hearing of a song that says there is, above all, a loving God. 


The Hard Fought For Four-hundred

Because three was wimpy and five was oppressive, here are three four-hundreds, for you:

Annie Dillard said she did not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. I hold it’s hand, she said, and hope it will get better. These days this is my every sentence. I have come here to the dock on the most beautiful October day, when I could be reading or swimming or fishing, to hold the hand of a desire as weary as the earth after September. I stare at the worn page and remember when it sparkled back at me. 

What should I expect? I asked the hospice nurse. 

What do you mean? she said, not wanting to answer a question I didn’t ask. She was a wise woman. 

I mean, will he, you know, will he? 

Honey, he should just stop breathing, she said.

She didn’t tell me how hard that would be and how it would be difficult to remember who I was before then. 

Writers block. This is normal. It happens. In labor pains, a woman cries check me!  Tell me how it’s going!  I need to know. But here I am crying  don’t check me! There has been no progress, I know it. All this pain and serving the work and I’ve been at 5 cm for months. I can’t stand for anyone to look over my shoulder and see what I haven’t accomplished. 

Leave me!  Don’t leave me!  Hold my hand, but look away. 

Have you ever known someone who knew you deeply, yet was perfectly content with you? Someone who didn’t try to get you to see things or fix things in yourself, not because they were indifferent, but because they were just truly happy and at rest in you? This is a rare thing, and rightly so. The wounds of a friend are sweet. Humility is the soil of all virtues. But I wonder if I was given this kind of love for a time so that I might be able to give it myself, like a seed that died in me. I’m sure the best fulfillment of this would be toward a person, but perhaps there will be enough there to give some to the page. 

I know you just spent an hour watching fish hit the surface of the water wrinkled in the breeze, waiting for 400 words to come so you can walk away, but honey, you’ll get better someday.


Jasper Sheffield was one of my great grandfathers, and the best of them to my knowledge. He had a farm in Esto, Florida and he was a faithful man in ways the others were not. Yet he had two memorable faults. First, that he drank… while driving the school bus. The second, that he would come in late to church, sit in the very back, and leave early. Sheffield is my middle name, after him, and I also share with him concerning these failures, a great deal of mutual feeling and sympathy. 

I’ve always gone to church, come hell or high-water, in sickness and in health, and I always will, as long as we both shall live. Yet not a Sunday goes by when I do not feel that Sheffield urge to slip in and out the back, to find an ox in the ditch somewhere, something to do, but I’ve come to see that putting on a dress and showing up for the long service is my work of mercy, to my family and community. It is not some open and peaceful thing I will feel, like floating down the river, but some muddy and hard thing I must do, like running fence in a bottom, and when I look at it that way, I think I can do this. Maybe that’s the way Jasper Sheffield thought of it too, and maybe I can sit and stand and kneel through the hours because he sat through the minutes when he wasn’t comfortable and kept coming back to try again. 

His daughter sits beside me. She is ninety years old. She rustles her papers and slams the hymnbook and sighs long and loud starting mid-sermon. She loves the liturgy because she knows what’s coming and follows along by watching when everyone else turns the page. She catches my eye as I look out the window and directs me to our place. She likes to sit thigh to thigh and rests her head on my shoulder. Down the line is her son, my father. She says he’s good looking, and he is, but the best thing about him is that he is there. From beginning to end, he is right there. He has filled up the absence of her youth and her old age has known new comforts.

But don’t ask any of us to drive the school bus. 

painting 8

One of the lake’s best stories is about a bank fisherman who caught a man. He was sitting on the shore with his can of King Cobra malt liquor and cup of worms when he got a hit on his line that was something serious. All he wanted was a big bream or flathead cat. He was just looking for some fun. Just something to take home so they couldn’t say he was wasting his time, yet he found himself wrestling with a rod bent double, praising and swearing, as a man came up through the water. A man alive. 

When I was little I would take turns imagining I was the fisherman and the diver. I would be weaving through the wreck of the biplane at the bottom of the lake, when a force would take hold. I would try to shake it loose. I would fight and then finally surrender, practicing this routine on the bottom of my aunt’s pool when all the other kids were playing Marco Polo. When all the kids grew up and dated and got married, I was still distracted. I have now resurfaced as a woman in the world to find that life is, after all, much like bank fishing with King Cobra and exploring the wreck under the surface of things. You come with ideas and expectations, but mostly you come unprepared. 

If you are wise you will know, as the wisest man said, that there is nothing new under the sun. Tomorrow is like to be as today. Yet wiser still, you learn that the truth is stranger than fairy tales and you are always on some end of a hook. You learn that God is good and creative and wants you to be sure of this, so he makes the line scream and jerks you back. He makes you both afraid of life and eager to live it. Glad to see the sun and gladder still to sleep. 

The diver and the fisherman had been happy the way they were, but not entirely, for no one wholly satisfied is in pursuit, even of a fish. They went after lesser things and got caught in a story worth the telling. Strangers tied together. They put on the flesh of invisible things.

So what happened next? Nobody knows. This was when the bystanders respectfully looked away, to let them sort it out.



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. 


     “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.