When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the green heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. ~Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things” fromThe Selected Poems of Wendell Berry
When our grandchildren visit our farm, I watch them rediscover what I know are the joys and sorrows of this world. I am reminded there is light beyond the darkness I fear, there is peace amid the chaos, there is a smile behind the tears, there is stillness within the noisiness there is rest despite my restlessness, there is grace as old gives way to new.
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It has been a long 18 months of dwelling deeply in all kinds of “supposes” and “what ifs” because people were being crushed by a virus right and left.
I understand this kind of thinking, particularly when “in the moment” tragedies, (like a Florida condo building collapsing in the middle of the night) play out real-time in the palm of our hand in front of our eyes and we feel helpless to do anything but watch it unfold.
Those who know me well know I can fret and worry better than most. Medical training only makes this worse. I’m taught to think catastrophically. That is what I have done for a living – to always be ready for the worse case scenario and simply assume it will happen.
Sometimes it does happen and no amount of wishing it away will work.
When I rise, too often sleepless, to face a day of uncertainty as we all do ~ after careful thought, I reach for the certainty I am promised over the uncertainty I can only imagine:
What is my only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong —body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
“Supposing it didn’t” — says our Lord (and we are comforted by this) but even if it did … even if it did – as awful things sometimes do – we are never abandoned.
He is with us always.
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We will grieve not, rather find Strength in what remains behind; In the primal sympathy Which having been must ever be;
Thanks to the human heart by which we live, Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears, To me the meanest flower that blows can give Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears. ~William Wordsworth from “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”
Twenty-six years ago today we watched at your bedside as you labored, readying yourself to die and we could not help except to be there while we watched you move farther away from us.
This dying, the hardest work you had ever done:
harder than handling the plow behind a team of draft horses, harder than confronting a broken, alcoholic and abusive father, harder than slashing brambles and branches to clear the woods, harder than digging out stumps, cementing foundations, building roofs, harder than shipping out, leaving behind a new wife after a week of marriage, harder than leading a battalion of men to battle on Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa, harder than returning home so changed there were no words, harder than returning to school, working long hours to support family, harder than running a farm with only muscle and will power, harder than coping with an ill wife, infertility, job conflict, discontent, harder than building your own pool, your own garage, your own house, harder than your marriage ending, a second wife dying, and returning home forgiven.
Dying was the hardest of all as no amount of muscle or smarts could stop it crushing you, taking away the strength you relied on for 73 years.
So as you lay helpless, moaning, struggling to breathe, we knew your hard work was complete and what was yet undone was up to us to finish for you.
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There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do – Go through his clothes and look for loose change. ~William Goldman – the wisdom of Miracle Max in The Princess Bride
You who believe, and you who sometimes believe and sometimes don’t believe much of anything, and you who would give almost anything to believe if only you could.
You happy ones and you who can hardly remember what it was like once to be happy.
You who know where you’re going and how to get there and you who much of the time aren’t sure you’re getting anywhere.
“Get up,” he says, all of you – all of you! – and the power that is in him is the power to give life not just to the dead like the child,
but to those who are only partly alive, which is to say to people like you and me
who much of the time live with our lives closed to the wild beauty and miracle of things, including the wild beauty and miracle of every day we live and even of ourselves. ~Frederick Buechner -Originally published inSecrets in the Dark
May I not settle for being slightly alive or mostly dead –
I want to be fully alive to the wild beauty and miracle of things, to the wild beauty and miracle of every day, and even the wild beauty and miracle of myself~~
I have known what it is to doubt, to be discouraged, defeated, and grieved.
It is part of the package: shadows appear when the Sun is the brightest and hottest. I have no doubt the Sun exists, especially after the last few days.
So I must “get up!” even if I don’t know where to go next.
And then I will believe ~truly believe~ I am created to be mostly and absolutely alive this day and every day.
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“Hold on,” she said, “I’ll just run out and get him. The weather here’s so good, he took the chance To do a bit of weeding.”
So I saw him Down on his hands and knees beside the leek rig, Touching, inspecting, separating one Stalk from the other, gently pulling up Everything not tapered, frail and leafless, Pleased to feel each little weed-root break, But rueful also . . .
Then found myself listening to The amplified grave ticking of hall clocks Where the phone lay unattended in a calm Of mirror glass and sunstruck pendulums . . .
And found myself then thinking: if it were nowadays, This is how Death would summon Everyman.
Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him.
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled, Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun, All felled, felled, are all felled; Of a fresh and following folded rank Not spared, not one That dandled a sandalled Shadow that swam or sank On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
O if we but knew what we do When we delve or hew — Hack and rack the growing green! Since country is so tender To touch, her being só slender, That, like this sleek and seeing ball But a prick will make no eye at all, Where we, even where we mean To mend her we end her, When we hew or delve: After-comers cannot guess the beauty been. Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve Strokes of havoc unselve The sweet especial scene, Rural scene, a rural scene, Sweet especial rural scene. ~Gerard Manley Hopkins “Binsey Poplars”
Our farm is bookshelved between two poplar rows, one short, the other longer. The trees are showing their advanced age and struggle now with winter storms with heavy winds and icy build-up, branches shattering like toothpicks.
They will eventually, like Hopkins’ Binsey poplars, be felled before they tumble weakened and withered in a gale, landing where they mustn’t.
I will miss their blowhard boldness, their noisy leaves and branches, their dance in the wind and their orderliness as they stand like guardians to the farm. I’m being sentimental but there will be a sadness when it comes time to say goodbye.
Once they are gone, who in the future would know they once stood there, towering above everything else.
Unlike the poplars, I must leave something behind to be remembered.
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May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord, with Thy saints forever, for Thou art kind. Eternal rest give to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.
Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine, cum sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius es. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.
In my father’s near daily letters home to my mother during WWII, month after month after month, he would say, over and over while apologizing for the repetition:
“I will come home to you, I will return, I will not let this change me, we will be joined again…”
This was his way of convincing himself even as he carried the dead and dying after island battles: men he knew well and the enemy he did not know. He knew they were never returning to the home they died protecting and to those who loved them.
He shared little of battle in his letters as each letter was reviewed and signed off by a censor before being sealed and sent. This story made it through:
“You mentioned a story of Navy landing craft taking the Marines into Tarawa. It reminded me of something which impressed me a great deal and something I’m sure I’ll never forget.
So you’ll understand what I mean I’ll try to start with an explanation. In training – close order drill- etc. there is a command that is given always when the men form in the morning – various times during the day– after firing– and always before a formation is dismissed. The command is INSPECTION – ARMS. On the command of EXECUTION- ARMS each man opens the bolt of his rifle. It is supposed to be done in unison so you hear just one sound as the bolts are opened. Usually it is pretty good and sounds O.K.
Just to show you how the morale of the men going to the <Tarawa> beach was – and how much it impressed me — we were on our way in – I was forward, watching the beach thru a little slit in the ramp – the men were crouched in the bottom of the boat, just waiting. You see- we enter the landing boats with unloaded rifles and wait till it’s advisable before loading. When we got about to the right distance in my estimation I turned around and said – LOAD and LOCK – I didn’t realize it, but every man had been crouching with his hand on the operating handle and when I said that — SLAM! — every bolt was open at once – I’ve never heard it done better – and those men meant business when they loaded those rifles.
A man couldn’t be afraid with men like that behind him.”
(for my father Henry Polis on Memorial Day)
It was only a part of what we knew about you- serving three long years in the South Pacific, spoken of obliquely only if asked about, but never really answered.
We knew you were a Marine battalion leader at age 21, knew you spent too many nights without sleep, unsure if you or your men would see the dawn only to dread what the next day would bring.
We knew you lost buddies and your innocence; found unaccustomed strength in a mama’s boy who once cried too easily and later almost never.
Somehow life had prepared you for this: pulling your daddy out of taverns when you were ten watching him beat your mama until finally getting big enough to stand in the way so he stopped.
Then Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian beaches bitterly bloodsoaked battles won, to be restored and renewed as vacation resorts.
We let you go without knowing your full story– even Mom didn’t ask. You could not share the depth of horror and fear you felt.
It was not shame that kept you silent; simply no need to revisit the pain of remembrance. It was done, finished, you had done your duty.
So as we again set flowers and flag on your grave, reunited with Mom after years apart, I regret so many questions unasked of your sacrifice beyond imagining.
Sleep well, Dad, with Mom now by your side. I rejoice you have wakened to a renewed dawn, an eternal light Lux Aeterna.
The sunlight now lay over the valley perfectly still. I went over to the graveyard beside the church and found them under the old cedars… I am finding it a little hard to say that I felt them resting there, but I did…
I saw that, for me, this country would always be populated with presences and absences, presences of absences, the living and the dead. The world as it is would always be a reminder of the world that was, and of the world that is to come. ~Wendell Berry in Jayber Crow
Today, as always during the last weekend of May, we have a family reunion where most turn up missing. A handful of the living come together with a slew of the no-longer-living. Some, who have been caught napping for a century or more, are no-shows.
It is always on this day of cemetery visiting that I feel keenly the presence of their absence: the great greats I never knew, a great aunt who kept so many secrets, my alcoholic grandfather (who I remember as a very old man) who died of sudden cardiac arrest at the age I am now, my grandmother from whom I inherited inherent messiness and the love of things that bloom, my parents who divorced for ten years late in life, yet reunited long enough for their ashes to rest together for eternity.
These givers of my genes rest here in this beautiful place above Puget Sound, the Cascade Mountains with shining snow beside them. It is a peaceful spot to lay one’s dust for eternity.
It is good, as one of the still-for-now living, to approach these plots of grass with a wary weariness of the aging. But for the grace of God, there will I be sooner than I wish to be. There, thanks to the grace of God, will I one day be an absent presence for my children and grandchildren to ponder if they keep up this annual tradition of the cemetery-visit.
The world as it is…remembers the world that was.
The world to come calls us home in its time, where we all will be present and accounted for — our reunion celebration where we pray no one is missing.
All in good time. All in good time.
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The talkative guest has gone, and we sit in the yard saying nothing. The slender moon comes over the peak of the barn.
The air is damp, and dense with the scent of honeysuckle. . . . The last clever story has been told and answered with laughter.
With my sleeping self I met my obligations, but now I am aware of the silence, and your affection, and the delicate sadness of dusk. ~Jane Kenyon, “The Visit” from Collected Poems
As we slowly adapt to evenings spent with family and friends again, taking off our masks to actually witness the emotion on a familiar, now unveiled, face:
There are smiles and laughter again. We are trying to remember how to be ourselves outside the fearfulness that contagion wrought. More important: there are tears again. And wistfulness. And regret. And longing.
This delicate sadness happened – even to those of us who were never directly touched by sickness. We will never be the same, never so light of heart again, remembering what this past year has cost.
It is a slow transition to dusk. We sit together now and watch it come.