Consider: In the midst of winter

Dear Friends,

It is winter, the bleak midwinter, the interminable haul between the end of Christmas and the first crocus.  I’ve been remembering a grey, ugly January afternoon many years ago when we still lived in Pennsylvania, when the snow had turned black with car exhaust.  In those days, the kids were young and still needed me every moment; silence was rare, a solitary walk still rarer.  But that frozen day, I needed to be by myself.  I left the girls with Martin and tromped up a neighborhood hill to my dear friend, Nancy’s house.  I lingered on the curb and surveyed her garden.

It was rather a mess: the chard and lettuces had shot to seed long ago; a tangled vine curved around the front door.  I remembered that the summer before, robins had made a nest in the house eaves.  Nancy had instructed the entire family to stop using the front door in order not to disturb the fledglings.  A few short weeks later, she left the garden and the robins and lay down in a hospice bed; shortly afterwards, she died.  She had battled cancer for three years.  I watched as her three young children followed her casket up to the front of the church.

On that January afternoon, the robin’s nest was empty.  Nancy was a zealot for sustainability and permaculture, and her yard showed it: an almond tree’s bare branches rose above a tangle of spent basil.  Around the side of the house, there were still blackened stalks of tomatoes and limp pea vines.  There was the patch where she’d plucked the delicata squash last fall and handed it to me with great awe, as if it were a sacred thing–and it was, pin-striped yellow and green.

Nancy and I were much like sisters in those years; we swapped kids, spent long afternoons peeling apples for sauce.  She taught my daughter to read and I taught hers to sing.  In the sick, miserable months when I was pregnant with my youngest, she sat me on the stool in her kitchen and fed me soup out of her favorite pottery bowl.  We dreamed gardens together.  Late in her illness, I made her soup, I went with her to the clinic, and in the silence as she breathed in oxygen, I recited “The Owl and the Pussycat” to pass the time.

Now, in her winter garden, there was silence again.  I went to work, yanking up dead snarls of herbs, cutting back perennials, scooping up armfuls of leaves.  The dry, brittle plants I pulled and piled up for compost were the same she had tenderly put in the ground months before.  As I cleared the soil back to a dark, black richness, I felt the weight of this sacred duty, and the greatness of my love for her.  I felt, too, the surprising, miraculous presence of life.  Unbidden, even offensive to me who worked in sorrow, I smelled the coming spring.  I snapped back a dead perennial stalk and there was a flash of green.  The dried basil was redolent of summer; the earthworms, I knew, were curled tightly just below my fingers, sleeping until the earth would warm again.

A while after I tidied her garden, I accompanied Nancy’s family to visit her grave, still a unhealed gash in the pale grass.  Around us, farmland rolled away in a sea of undulating hills. Nancy’s children stood beside me, young and vulnerable, desperately missing their mother.  Nancy’s husband raised his eyes and searched the horizon.   “We look for the eternal spring,” he said.

IMG_0804I wondered at the time if those words came straight from the liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church, to which the family belonged; for each word seemed to me to bear mysterious promise–like the perennials in Nancy’s garden.  We look for the eternal spring.  Those are the two things I remember from that season following her death: the silence of working in her garden, and the simple goodness of her husband’s graveside words.  Not gaudy or extraneous or saccharine, those words bound up pain and longing and faith at once, and I have carried them with me ever since.

In this new year, may we be present with each other, holding one another in silence, with love, with the goodness of sacred words.  May we find solace in the seasons of this beautiful world, and in the wonder that bids us look beyond the brittle stalks of winter.

Peace,

Kim

Consider: Song in a Broken World

Dear Friends,

After a busy summer, Lindsay and I are settling back into school-year rhythms.  We’ve missed the practice of writing for Each Holy Hour and the camaraderie of exploring this good world with each of you.  We hope your fall routines are emerging with space for a cup of tea and a deep breath.  I wrote this reflection a few days ago, shortly after our summer ended in the sort of unexpected tragedy that marks all our lives.  Thank you for sharing this space with me.

It’s been a week since I watched my dog die, and today I am finding the business of living difficult. I am trying to summon my energy for tasks and goals. I am trying to make myself go for a walk, by myself.  Charley, our Jack Russell, was after all a dog, and I can live without a dog. But the truth is, I miss him terribly.

It doesn’t help that our sun glows red today from the fires devastating Washington and Oregon’s exquisite forests. Elsewhere, floods and hurricanes shatter livelihoods. As I watered my parched garden this morning, I pulsed with the ancient question: why do terrible things destroy good? Why does senseless violence pummel homes, devour lives, wreck hopes, and just last week, tear our beloved dog apart in front of my daughter Beatrix and my niece?

I haven’t been able to get the images out of my mind. As we walked home from soccer practice, a large, vicious dog appeared silently, took Charley in his jaws, and shook him until he died.  In the hours that followed, Beatrix kept sobbing, “Why did that have to happen?”

I don’t know, I don’t know, I’m sorry. It is the only refrain I can find in moments of tragedy.

What I see in this world is beautiful. What I see in this world is broken. What I know right now is sadness.

And yet. Last night, as Beatrix lingered over dinner, I suddenly thought of an old hymn we learned years ago at our Mennonite Church. Before I knew it, I was singing it out loud, locking eyes with my daughter.

My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

Over the years, through bone-shattering tragedy that has destroyed people and places we loved with all our hearts, I have come back to that hymn. Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

Today, once again, I hold both the reality of not-knowing, of grief, alongside this song my soul sings. It is a song shot through by the same sure joy I saw in our dog as he sprinted after a squirrel or snuggled next to Beatrix at the end of the day. It is the song that stirred us as a policeman laid his own jacket over Charley’s broken body.  It is the song of my sister quietly returning to scrub away the signs of brutality from the pavement.  It is a song I chose to hear, of being alive in a place where–despite everything–Love is Lord of heaven and earth.

Lindsay sent me an excerpt from Le Petit Prince a few days ago.

“Goodbye,” said the fox. “Here is my secret. One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

Thank you, friend of my heart, for those words. Today, though my heart aches, I choose to return again to what is essential:  great love, a world shot through by beauty and goodness. How then can I keep from singing?

Peace,

Kim

p.s. Join us on The Back Page for a discussion about summers, dogs, and new responsibilities.  We’d love to hear your summer memories and your autumnal hopes! (Spoiler Alert: Kim is getting to know a beautiful rescue dog and Lindsay is busy with students!)

p.p.s.  We’ve still got a stack of lovely “Each Holy Hour” cards.  Please let us know if you’d like to find one in your mailbox.  Just visit the “Contact Us” page at our website and send us your address.  There’s no obligation and your information is completely private–it’s truly a free little gift of wonder.

A World of Dew, And Yet

It’s early summer and the roses are as wide as tea saucers.  When I pass by the garden on the way into the house, their heady scent cloaks me.  There are too many blooms to cut and bring inside, but the few I’ve arranged simply in vases astound me with their dense layers of petals.  

I am humbled by beauty like this; without a great deal of work from me, the garden yields new blossoms every morning. As I read Lindsay’s Consider this week, I felt humbled again by the realization that though majesty and wonder charge our world, many people can’t experience either. How fortunate I am to be able to feel something as I look at the roses.

I am aware that my perception of beauty and enjoyment of this world is a gift, and a tenuous one at that.  I think of the dear people I’ve known who have battled depression, of the powerlessness and despair they have tried to describe–a dulling of all senses, an inability to respond, to hear, to see.  “It’s like being deep underwater, wrapped in chains,” a friend once told me.  I can see glimmers of action, hear muted voices above me, but I can’t free myself to swim to the surface.”  When this friend ended her life after a long battle with mental illness, someone told me that she believed some people were just not meant for this world.

No.  I can’t believe it.  My convictions tell me otherwise; my faith that we are eternal beings made in the image of God instills a hope in me that, like Emily Dickinson’s bird with feathers, sang on even in the terrible, broken days that followed my friend’s death.

And yet the ache.  And yet the terrible irony that the people I love who have suffered most acutely from depression are people who, when they are well, are most sensitive to the goodness and beauty in the world.  The injustice of it, the awful brokenness of it, makes me long for more than this world of dew.

This world of dew

Is a world of dew,

And yet. . . .

Poet Kobayashi Issa wrote this after his one-year old daughter died from smallpox.  His days were shot through by tragedy–two more children and his wife also died.  And yet he wrote magnificent haiku that evidenced life was often an encounter with delight.  Here’s another from his wonderful volume The Spring of My Life that I loved so much I wrote up on our kitchen wall:

With such a voice

You should also learn to dance,

Bellowing Frog.

“We are made for this world.  We are not made for this world.”  Can both be true?

A year after a close friend of mine died from breast cancer, I stood with her nine-year old daughter at her grave, still a gash of unhealed dirt in the cemetery.  This girl whom I love so much, best friend to my own daughter, bent under the weight of her grief.  Her shoulders shook with sobs.  Her father, my friend’s husband, looked out into the hills smoky with twilight and shining with the first color of fall, and said, “We look for the Eternal Spring.”  

I have never forgotten his words.  In this early summer with the roses before me, I touch the sorrow that scars us all.  I am made for this world, wholly and completely.  With great humility, I say, Yes! to this world, and yet. . .And yet.   I long for the Eternal Spring.

Consider: The Wonder and Wound of this World

Dear Friends-

Yesterday the dog and I went on our favorite run.  For half an hour before I laced my shoes, I walked around moaning, “I don’t want to go.  Don’t make me go.”  There was no one “making” me go, unless you count the way Phoebe paced behind me, showing the “great red tear that makes us so sorry for noble dogs,” as J.M. Barrie calls it.  At last, with what seemed incredible mental effort, my shoes were on, my excuses over and we were padding out the door.  Predictably, within the first 400 yards, I wondered what all my fuss had been about.   

It was impossibly beautiful out there.  In the cooler, shadowy places, the hillsides were blue tongues of lupine, red sparks of Indian Paintbrush.  And in one spot, as I rounded a tight corner, I startled a flock of finches.  They flurried up, a chittering cumulous.  First a few.  Then more and more.  Until scores had burst from cover in the lupine, wings glinting in the low sun, and disappeared into the dark shadows of a lone ponderosa.  I felt over-awed by the sight, filled with a glad in-rush, new-born.  And yet in the same moment, something snagged my heart, that thing we call “a pang,” that sense beauty beheld is passing even as we encounter it.

“For to come upon warblers in early May

Was to forget time and death:

How they filled the oriole’s elm, a twittering restless

cloud, all one morning,” —Theodore Roethke, North American Sequence

I love the beauty in these lines from Roethke.  But I don’t believe them.  Warblers in May or finches startled from among the lupine do not make one forgetful of time’s passage.  They do not obscure the dark stile at the bend in the road.  Despite his statement to the contrary, I don’t for a moment think Roethke forgot these companions, else why bring them up?  Beauty is twined with loss, inseparable.

Every shiver of joy has a pull of loss in it, a rip in the seam. I can catch the glorious up-well of gladness.  But I can’t keep it.  Like the finches, it glints gold for a moment then disappears into a bank of shadow.

“Joy’s trick is to supply

Dry lips with what can cool and slake,

Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache

Nothing can satisfy.”  – Richard Wilbur, “Hamlen Brook”

Richard Wilbur gets it right.  It is the signature trick of joy to both slake and leave behind an unsatisfiable ache.  Like a koan that defies the mind’s desire to parse and explicate, the aftereffect of joy is paradox.  In the middle of the finch storm, I had a deep sense of having been met and having been left.  Filled and emptied.  At home in the world and an exile from my heart’s true homeland.  I’m straining here, which is why the wiser Wilbur used “dumbstruck” and avoided the muddle.

We are made for this world.

We are not made for this world.

Can both of these be true?

At every turn, consciousness tugs us in both directions.  This wonder and wound is a birthright that, however many steps we take, we can’t outrun.

Here’s to cultivating wonder,

–Lindsay

P.S. We would LOVE to send you a little Each Holy Hour through the post office.  Just email us at eachholyhour@gmail.com with your mailing address and we’ll send you a personal message on one of our beautiful postcards. Just a bit of love from us to you.

P.P.S.  Last week’s Consider prompted some discussion on the Back Page about our faith journeys.  Pour a cup of tea and enjoy the meander.

What Remains

Seventeen years ago, as Tim and I returned from our honeymoon in Maine, we spent the drive memorizing a W.H. Auden poem.  In Camden, I’d picked up a hardcover collection of Auden’s work and, as we drove, I leafed through its pages until coming to “As I Walked Out One Evening.”  The poem – fitting it seemed for a honeymoon – begins with two lovers strolling along the Thames.  Reaching a bridge, the lovers linger (as lovers do) to pledge and proclaim their undying love.

Sweet, sentimental stuff, these words, and on-point for two kids driving through coastal Maine with the “Just Married” paint still visible on our car’s rear window.

Then without warning, Auden’s poem veers sharply.

Into the midst of the lovers’ disclaiming, suddenly “all the clocks in the city/ Began to whirr and chime. ”  On and on the clocks go with their tolling, gainsaying the lover’s optimism.  Through the next several stanzas, Auden relentlessly compiles the ways time works its many disappointments, piling up losses in its wake.  “Into many a green valley,” he notes, “drifts the appalling snow.”

These deft lines steer toward a single question: What can stand the relentless onslaught of time?  The clocks’ insistence consigns everything to dissolution.  Their tolling indicts love’s pretensions to escape unmarred.  Happy stuff for a honeymoon, yes?

In this week’s Consider, Kim writes about sorrow padding along beside her amid spring’s glories.  “How do I make peace with a reality where beauty and travesty stand shoulder-to-shoulder?” she asks.

This has been a week of devastating news.  A week in which we’ve seen another place claim its spot on the sad and terrible litany we repeat: Paris, San Bernadino, Orlando, London, Brussels, Manchester.

Of course, loss isn’t only in such epic tragedies.  As I watch the painful dissolution of a friend’s marriage, as I watch my widower neighbor try to get a handle on his days, I know we are deep in the appalling snow.  And, if we probe our own hearts, who of us cannot touch some vein that seizes with sorrow?

“Sorrow is so woven through us, so much a part of our souls, or at least any understanding of our souls that we are able to attain, that every experience is dyed with its color.  This is why, even in moments of joy, part of that joy is the seams of ore that are our sorrow,” Christian Wiman writes in his essay “Sorrow’s Flower.”

As Wiman suggests, I don’t think there is peace to be made with the reality of beauty and travesty standing shoulder-to-shoulder.  Rather this is the animating tension of our lives.  As Auden shows, even in a blessed life where things are going well, the clock is still ticking away the moments, is still stepping us closer to the tragedy that will stagger us.  The lovers’ blissful moment by the river (and indeed every moment, blissful or not) is haunted and compromised by this reality.  And isn’t that reason enough for sorrow to run its vein right through us?

What do we do with such a reality?  Despite the dismal state he has descried, Auden will not leave us comfortless.  He enjoins the reader with two incredible stanzas:

‘O look, look in the mirror,

O look in your distress:

Life remains a blessing

Although you cannot bless.


‘O stand, stand at the window

As the tears scald and start;

You shall love your crooked neighbour

With your crooked heart.'

 

Through the years, these words have never run dry.  The hope they contain is not starry-eyed — rather wrested from the muck, with the dirty fingerprints of that struggle still upon it.  There is no way around this place where sorrow and loss compromise your joys.  One must go through.  And as we do, we find the incredible, mysterious truth that, however compromised we are, life remains a blessing.  From this new-found place, “You shall love your crooked neighbour/ With your crooked heart.”

Late this summer, Tim and I will have our eighteenth wedding anniversary.  Like Auden’s lovers, we’ve had plenty of moments that have sung out with promise.  And we’ve had plenty which would  be better characterized by his line, “in headaches and in worry, vaguely life leaks away.”  Such are the conditions of being.  And you know what, friends?  However deep in the appalling snow, however much the clocks toll time’s passing, however crooked I find myself and my neighbour, Auden’s humble words abide.  They run on and on like the river.  “Life remains a blessing.”