It’s a hard time to be human. We know too much and too little. Does the breeze need us? The cliffs? The gulls? If you’ve managed to do one good thing, the ocean doesn’t care. But when Newton’s apple fell toward the earth, the earth, ever so slightly, fell toward the apple as well.
~Ellen Bass from “The World Has Need of You”
God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall, go to the limits of your longing. Embody me.
Flare up like a flame and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand. ~Rainer Maria Rilke from “Book of Hours”
For too much of my life I have focused on the future, bypassing the present. There is always a goal to achieve, a conclusion becoming commencement of the next phase, a sunset turning right around in a few hours to become sunrise.
When the present is so hard, so overwhelming, so riveting, so tenderly full of life or achingly full of death, I grab hold with all my strength to try and secret it away and keep it forever. Even if it slips away from me, elusive and evasive, torn to bits by the unrelenting and devastating movement of time, I have felt the earth move, ever so slightly, toward me.
So, whether out of joy or pain, I must write to harvest those times to make them last a little bit longer. Maybe not forever; they will be lost downstream into the ether of unread words.
Even if unread, I am learning that words, which had the power in the beginning to create all life, can bring tenderness and meaning back to my life. I embody Him.
How blessed to live the gift twice: not just in the moment itself but in writing words that preserve and treasure it all up.
It is easy enough to write and talk about God
while remaining comfortable
within the contemporary intellectual climate.
Even people who would call themselves unbelievers
often use the word gesturally,
as a ready-made synonym for mystery.
But if nature abhors a vacuum,
Christ abhors a vagueness.
If God is love,
Christ is love
for this one person,
this one place,
this one time-bound and
time-ravaged self. ~Christian Wiman from My Bright Abyss
Well aware of all I am not,
my shortcomings and failings,
my temptation to deny self-denial,
my inability to see beyond my own troubles,
forgetting this life is not all about me:
~neglecting to witness first hand
all that God through Christ is:
the beauty in His becoming man,
the joy of His joining up with us,
the love in His gracious sacrifice,
the full promise of His Word that breathes
life back into my dying soul~
and so it becomes all about me
not because of
what I’ve done,
or who I am,
but because of
who He is and was and will be:
He loves me,
this time-bound and time-ravaged me,
no matter what.
Here is the mystery, the secret, one might almost say the cunning, of the deep love of God: that it is bound to draw on to itself the hatred and pain and shame and anger and bitterness and rejection of the world, but to draw all those things on to itself is precisely the means, chosen from all eternity by the generous, loving God, by which to rid his world of the evils which have resulted from human abuse of God-given freedom. ~N.T. Wright
God has paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, in the deepest, most tragic, most inexorable sense. C.S. Lewis
In Summer, in a burst of summertime Following falls and falls of rain, When the air was sweet-and-sour of the flown fineflower of Those goldnails and their gaylinks that hang along a lime;
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “Cheery Beggar”
Sweet and sour extends far beyond a Chinese menu; it is the daily air we breathe. Dichotomy is so much of our life and times, more distinct than the bittersweet of simple pleasures laced with twinges and tears.
We are but cheery beggars in this world, desiring to hang tight to the overwhelming sweetness of each glorious moment — the startling sunrise, the lush green and golden blooms following spring showers, the warm hug of a compassionate word, the house filled with love and laughter. But as beggars aren’t choosers, we can’t only have sweet alone; we must endure the sour that comes as part of the package — the deepening dark of a sleepless night, the muddy muck of endless rain, the sting of a biting critique, the loneliness of an home emptying and much too quiet.
So we slog through sour to revel some day, even more so, in sweet. Months of manure-permeated air is overcome one miraculous morning by the unexpected and undeserved fragrance of apple and pear blossoms, so sweet, so pure, so full of promise of the fruit to come. The manure makes the sweet sweeter and once again the earth turns upside down.
And we breathe in deeply, content and grateful for a moment of grace and bliss, wanting to hold it in the depths of our lungs forever.
Our memories are, at best, so limited, so finite, that it is impossible for us to envisage an unlimited, infinite memory, the memory of God. It is something I want to believe in: that no atom of creation is ever forgotten by him; always is; cared for; developing; loved. ~Madeleine L’Engle from The Summer of the Great-Grandmother
He of strength and hope
loves and knows us down to our atoms ~~
the weak, the broken, the undeserving.
His infinite memory causes us to burst into bloom.
Well-away and be it so,
To the stranger let them go.
Even cheerfully I yield
Pasture, orchard, mowing-field,
Yea and wish him all the gain
I required of them in vain.
Yea and I can yield him house,
Barn, and shed, with rat and mouse
To dispute possession of.
These I can unlearn to love.
Since I cannot help it? Good!
Only be it understood, It shall be no trespassing If I come again some spring In the grey disguise of years, Seeking ache of memory here. ~Robert Frost from “On the Sale of My Farm”
From the road, each of the small farms where I grew up look nothing like they did in my childhood. When I drive past now, the outbuildings are changed and unfamiliar, fences pulled down, the trees exponentially taller, the fields no longer well-tended. Instead the familiarity is in the road to get there, the lean into the curves, the acceleration in and out of dips, the landscape which triggers a comfort and disquiet deep in my cells.
I have never stopped to knock; instead I drive slowly past to sense if I feel what I used to feel in these places.
One clinic day, I glanced at the home address of a young man I was about to see and realized he now lived in my childhood home. When I greeted him I told him we had something in common: we had grown up under the same roof, inside the same walls, though children of different generations. He was curious but skeptical — how could this gray-haired middle aged woman know anything about his home? He told me a bit about the house, the barn, the fields, the garden and how he experienced it felt altogether strange to me. He and I had shared nothing but a patch of real estate.
I worry for the fearsome ache if someday, due to age or finances, we must sell our current farm ~ this beloved place our children were raised, animals bred and cared for, plants tended and soil turned over. It will remain on the map surely as the other two farms of my past, visible as we pass by slowly on the road, but primarily alive in the words I have harvested here, that sweet ache of seeking it out on the map of my memory.
Some of the most powerful memories of summer come out of our childhood
when we wake up on a June morning and suddenly remember that school is out
and that summer stretches in front of us as endlessly as the infinities of space.
Everything is different.
The old routines are gone.
The relentless school bus isn’t coming.
The bells will be silent in silent hallways.
And all the world is leafy green, and will be green, forever and ever. ~Ray Bradbury
Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the treehouse; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colors in a parched landscape; but most of all, summer was Dill. ~ Harper Lee in Too Kill a Mockingbird
Time lurches ahead in imprecisely measured chunks. Sometimes the beginning and ending of seasons are the yardstick, or celebrating a holiday or a birthday. Memories tend to be stickiest surrounding a milestone event: a graduation, a move, a wedding, a birth, a road trip, a funeral.
But Summer needs nothing so remarkable to be memorable. It simply stands on its own in all its extravagant abundance of light and warmth and growth and color stretching deep within the rising and setting horizons. Each long day can feel like it must last forever, never ending, yet it does eventually wind down, spin itself out, darkening gradually into shadow. We let go with reluctance; we feel as if no summer like it will ever come again.
Yet another will, somehow, somewhere, someday. Surely a never-ending summer is what heaven itself will be.
Perfectly delightful and delightfully perfect. We’ve already had a taste.
The nail of each big toe was the horn of a goat. Thick as a thumb and curved, it projected down over the tip of the toe to the underside. With each step, the nail would scrape painfully against the ground and be pressed into his flesh. There was dried blood on each big toe.
It took an hour to do each big toe. The nails were too thick even for my nail cutters. They had to be chewed away little by little, then flattened out with the rasp, washed each toe, dried him off, and put his shoes and socks back on. He stood up and took a few steps, like someone who is testing the fit of a new pair of shoes. “How is it?”
“It don’t hurt,” he said, and gave me a smile that I shall keep in my safety deposit box at the bank until the day I die. I never go to the library on Wednesday afternoon without my nail clippers in my briefcase.
You just never know. ~Richard Seltzer from “Toenails” from Letters to a Young Doctor
I know for a while again the health of self-forgetfulness, looking out at the sky through a notch in the valleyside, the black woods wintry on the hills, small clouds at sunset passing across. And I know that this is one of the thresholds between Earth and Heaven, from which even I may step forth and be free. – Wendell Berry from “Sabbath Poems”
Whenever I lose perspective about what I’m trained to do
and who I am meant to serve,
when I wallow in the mud of self-importance
rather than in the health of self-forgetfulness~
I wash out a plug of wax from a deaf ear
and restore hearing
or clip someone’s crippling toenails
so they can step forth in freedom.
I’ve been given these tools for a reason
so need to use them.
You just never know.