It was like the moment when a bird decides not to eat from your hand, and flies, just before it flies, the moment the rivers seem to still and stop because a storm is coming, but there is no storm, as when a hundred starlings lift and bank together before they wheel and drop, very much like the moment, driving on bad ice, when it occurs to you your car could spin, just before it slowly begins to spin, like the moment just before you forgot what it was you were about to say, it was like that, and after that, it was still like that, only all the time. ~Marie Howe “Part of Eve’s Discussion”
We all know how vulnerable we are to temptation; we know our failings and weaknesses yet how quickly we can go from knowing to forgetting.
There is a stillness, a suspension of time, in that moment of knowing – there is constant internal debate about the choices we face and what to do with that knowledge.
How many of us, knowing well the consequences, still do what we ought not to do? How many of us, having been previously told, having learned from history, having already experienced our own banishment, still make the wrong decision?
All of us, all the time, that’s how many. We are helpless despite our knowledge of good and evil. We forget, over and over.
Thank God for His grace in the face of our poor memories. Thank God He still feeds us wholly from His loving hands.
What courage we had, our infantry stretched across the yard, no shields, no swords, no cavalry assembled behind us calming their nervous mounts. We had the strength of our arms, the speed of our legs. We had our friends and our convictions. Opposite us, the undulating line of children drew suddenly straight. It was early on a summer day but the larks fell silent. A high voice invoked the name Red Rover; we could not say who said it first. But righteousness passed through us like current through a wire. Or like an inaugural sip of wine burning in our chests, something father gave us over our mother’s earnest protestations. ~Connie Wanek, “Red Rover” from Rival Gardens
… if you ran, time ran. You yelled and screamed and raced and rolled and tumbled and all of a sudden the sun was gone and the whistle was blowing and you were on your long way home to supper. When you weren’t looking, the sun got around behind you! The only way to keep things slow was to watch everything and do nothing! You could stretch a day to three days, sure, just by watching! ~Ray Bradbury from Dandelion Wine
I was a kid born without the necessary courage to enjoy playground games and sports – I was always chosen last as I didn’t have good coordination, I wasn’t fast or strong and I wasn’t physically aggressive. Games like dodge ball and Red Rover were too intimidating as I inevitably got battered and bruised by the other kids.
In Red Rover, that impenetrable line-up of kids found a weak link in me. I could feel the electricity like a current through the linked arms in the line, until it came to me. I became the off switch. Kids knew to choose my arm to break through because I tended to let go rather than have my arm bashed and bruised by some big kid running straight into it.
How have my years of work felt similar? Now well into my seventh decade, I can recall a few times when I’ve chosen to “let go” rather than get bruised. I’ve tried to be strong enough to stand up to the battering that comes with leadership positions and taking unpopular stands. It takes its toll and I regret I’m not strong enough at times. However, there is relief in no longer being connected to the electric current of these times.
What I always liked best about the playground was to simply run and jump and holler and hoot from the joy of being alive, or to just stand and watch what was going on around me without having to be in the center of things. Now decades later, I find myself again standing apart, just watching, grateful I’m no longer part of the line up about to get bashed.
The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming. We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.” ~Frederick Buechner from A Room Called Remember
He was a big man, says the size of his shoes on a pile of broken dishes by the house; a tall man too, says the length of the bed in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man, says the Bible with a broken back on the floor below the window, dusty with sun; but not a man for farming, say the fields cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.
A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves covered with oilcloth, and they had a child, says the sandbox made from a tractor tire. Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole. And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames. It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.
Something went wrong, says the empty house in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste. And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard like branches after a storm—a rubber cow, a rusty tractor with a broken plow, a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say. ~Ted Kooser, “Abandoned Farmhouse” from Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems.
In 1959, when I was five years old, my father left his high school agriculture teaching position for a new supervisor position with the state. I didn’t understand at the time the reasons for his leaving his job after 13 years.
Our family moved from a large 3 story farm house in a rural community to a 1950’s newer rambler style home just outside the city limits of the state capitol. It was a big adjustment to move to a much smaller house without a basement or upper story, no garage, and no large haybarn nor chicken coop. It meant most things we owned didn’t make the move with us.
The rambler had two side by side mirror image rooms as the primary central living space between the kitchen on one side and the hallway to the bedrooms on the other. The living room could only be entered through the front door and the family room was accessed through the back door with a shared sandstone hearth in the center, containing a fireplace in each room. The only opening between the rooms had a folding door shut most of the year. In December, the door was opened to accommodate a Christmas tree, so it sat partially in the living room and depending on its generous width, spilled over into the family room. That way it was visible from both rooms, and didn’t take up too much floor space.
The living room, because it contained the only carpeting in the house, and our “best” furniture, was strictly off-limits. In order to keep our two matching sectional knobby gray fabric sofas, a green upholstered chair and gold crushed velvet covered love seat in pristine condition, the room was to be avoided unless we had company. The carpet was never to develop a traffic pattern, there would be no food, beverage, or pet ever allowed in that room, and the front door was not to be used unless a visitor arrived. The hearth never saw a fire lit on that side because of the potential of messy ashes or smoke smell. This was not a room for laughter, arguments or games and certainly not for toys. The chiming clock next to the hearth, wound with weighted cones on the end of chains, called out the hours without an audience.
One week before Christmas, a tree was chosen to fit in the space where it could overflow into the family room. I particularly enjoyed decorating the “family room” side of the tree, using all my favorite ornaments that were less likely to break if they fell on the linoleum floor on that side of the door.
It was as if the Christmas tree became divided, with a “formal” side in the living room and a “real life” face on the other side where the living (and hurting) was actually taking place.
The tree straddled more than just two rooms. Every year that tree’s branches reached out to shelter a family that was slowly, almost imperceptibly, falling apart, like the fir needles dropping to the floor to be swept away. Something was going wrong.
Each year since, the Christmas tree bearing those old ornaments from my childhood reminds me of a still room of mixed memories within me. I am no longer wary of the past, and when I sweep up the fir needles that inevitably drop, I no longer weep.
Announced by all the trumpets of the sky, Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields, Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven, And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end. The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed In a tumultuous privacy of storm.
Come see the north wind’s masonry. Out of an unseen quarry evermore Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer Curves his white bastions with projected roof Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work, The frolic architecture of the snow. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson from “The Snow-Storm”
The barn bears the weight of the first heavy snow without complaint.
White breath of cows rises in the tie-up, a man wearing a frayed winter jacket reaches for his milking stool in the dark.
The cows have gone into the ground, and the man, his wife beside him now.
A nuthatch drops to the ground, feeding on sunflower seed and bits of bread I scattered on the snow.
The cats doze near the stove. They lift their heads as the plow goes down the road, making the house tremble as it passes. ~Jane Kenyon “This Morning”
We’ve seen harsher northeast winds, we’ve seen heavier snow. Yet there is something refreshingly disruptive about the once or twice a year overnight snow storm: it transforms, transcends and transfigures.
So we stay home when the weather and farms demand we do, to feed and water ourselves and our animals and the wild ones around us. It is a quiet and private and tumultuous time, a time to be attuned to one another.
Outside the house the wind is howling and the trees are creaking horribly. This is an old story with its old beginning, as I lay me down to sleep. But when I wake up, sunlight has taken over the room. You have already made the coffee and the radio brings us music from a confident age. In the paper bad news is set in distant places. Whatever was bound to happen in my story did not happen. But I know there are rules that cannot be broken. Perhaps a name was changed. A small mistake. Perhaps a woman I do not know is facing the day with the heavy heart that, by all rights, should have been mine. ~Lisel Mueller “In November”
It does not escape me~ (I wake every day knowing this) the earthquake happened somewhere else, a tornado leveled some other town, a plane full of ordinary people like me was shot out of the sky, a drunk driver destroyed a family, a fire left a forest and homes in ashes, a missing son’s body was found frozen in an avalanche, a devastating diagnosis darkens someone’s remaining days.
No mistake has been made, yet I wake knowing this part of my story has not yet visited me- the heavy heart that should have been mine awaits, still breaking, still bleeding, still beating still believing miracles can happen.
It can happen like that: meeting at the market, buying tires amid the smell of rubber, the grating sound of jack hammers and drills, anywhere we share stories, and grace flows between us.
The tire center waiting room becomes a healing place as one speaks of her husband’s heart valve replacement, bedsores from complications. A man speaks of multiple surgeries, notes his false appearance as strong and healthy.
I share my sister’s death from breast cancer, her youngest only seven. A woman rises, gives her name, Mrs. Henry, then takes my hand. Suddenly an ordinary day becomes holy ground. ~ Stella Nesanovich, “Everyday Grace,” from Third Wednesday
The only use of a knowledge of the past is to equip us for the present. The present contains all that there is. It is holy ground; for it is the past, and it is the future. ~Alfred North Whitehead
It matters less what has happened or what will happen. What matters is happening right this very moment – in the tire center waiting room, the grocery store check out line, the exam room of the doctor’s office. Are we living fully in the present and paying attention?
We are sentient creatures with a proclivity to bypass the present to dwell on the past or fret about the future. This has been true of humans since our creation. Those observing Buddhist tradition and New Age believers of the “Eternal Now” call our attention to the present moment through the teaching of “mindfulness” to bring a sense of peacefulness and fulfillment.
Mindfulness is all well and good but I don’t believe the present is about our minds. It is not about us at all.
The present is an ordinary day transformed to holy ground where we are allowed to tread:
We are asked to remove our shoes in an attitude of respect to a loving God who gives us life. We are to approach each other and each sacred moment with humility. We turn aside from the dailiness of our lives to look at what He has promised. We are connected to one another through our Maker.
There can be no other moment just like this one, so this is no time to waste. There may be no other beyond this one. Right now, this moment sorely barefoot, I am simply grateful to be here and connected to each of you.
… we can make a house called tomorrow. What we bring, finally, into the new day, every day,
Is ourselves. And that’s all we need To start. That’s everything we require to keep going.
Look back only for as long as you must, Then go forward into the history you will make.
Be good, then better. Write books. Cure disease. Make us proud. Make yourself proud.
And those who came before you? When you hear thunder, Hear it as their applause. ~Albert Rios from “A House Called Tomorrow”
All days are sacred days to wake New gladness in the sunny air. Only a night from old to new; Only a sleep from night to morn. The new is but the old come true; Each sunrise sees a new year born. ~Helen Hunt Jackson from “New Year’s Morning”
We awake glad this morning, breathing deeply of the sacred that glistens in the light of a soft sunrise. Each day is a fresh start, a gift from those who have gone before. We bring ourselves to His table, renewing our covenant with God and each other. And the trees of the field will clap their hands…