Sunday Quotes: I Would Not Have Been A Writer

“I would not have been a poet
except that I have been in love
alive in this mortal world,
or an essayist except that I
have been bewildered and afraid,
or a storyteller had I not heard
stories passing to me through the air,
or a writer at all except
that I have been wakeful in the night
and words have come to me
out of their deep caves,
needing to be remembered.”

-Wendell Berry; This Day

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Anywhere But Here

anywhere but here

There’s a Catholic shrine in the woods next to our apartment building, a remnant from the days when the campus was a local monastery. It sits back from the parking lot, a stone arch topped with a cross and steps approaching its base, nestled into the trees. It’s easily seen to one who looks but seems as though it might be trying to hide, or let itself be forgotten, in a manner abandoned places often do.

I’ve developed the habit of taking short walks before bed. And I often find myself at the shrine, sitting on the stone table beneath the arch. There’s something wonderful, something mystical, about it that draws me under it’s shadow, to rest, listen, feel it breathing beneath me, at least for a little bit.

I spent part of my undergraduate years at a school in southern Indiana, where the cornfields yield to rolling foothills. Close to where I lived there was an old state road, winding like a forgotten river away from the new, four-lane highway that replaced it. Indeed, a small brook sang its way alongside the road; treetops curved over the pavement as if nature itself were embracing the street, comforting it, shielding it. It was hardly a few miles long, this road, from the place where it left the modern era and wound along a niche of the world overlooked by human time, before reconnecting at a four-way intersection. I never saw many cars on the road, though I spent hours running, walking, driving it’s length. If I had a thousand lives I’d spend a handful of them there, listening to the stories of the pavement.

For the place seemed, to me, like suburbia and farmland had met, at a sleazy bar in a hotel called “Progress.” The result of their one-night stand was a child, unwanted and unrecognized to a fast-paced world which ultimately left it behind; a child named Narnia.

Oh, what stories the forgotten might tell- the broken in spirit, Jesus would say. If only someone would listen.

My whole life I’ve operated under the notion that places are dead; inanimate, we’re told. And so they become unnoticed collateral; we discard places like tissues, use them as stepping-stones to our own journey, never listening to the stories the stones themselves might tell when they cry out, as Jesus would say.

But places haunt me; Narnia cries quietly in the shadows of my yesteryear. Like people, friends, acquaintances, lovers and kin- places inhabit small parts of my soul with a life of their own; and I cannot be free of them. As if I’d want to.

Celtic theology holds to the notion of “thin-places”, areas where the veil between heaven and earth is sparse enough for eternity to break through. I’m not sure if I believe in thin-places; for all the mountains, oceans, valleys and canyons-for all the wonders I’ve seen- I might have been convinced. Except such places never seem thin to me, but rather inexpressibly thick. Thick like the smell of rainfall on parched land, thick like the heaviness of a good feast, one that’s not soon forgotten; thick like the poetry of “I do”, like a lover’s dress sliding off the shoulder; thick like desperation, thick like the pain of loss, the sounds of a sirens in the night and the soil that eventually covers, buries us all. I don’t know about thin places, but I’ve been to thick places.

And the shame is that, for every thick place I’ve been, I’ve always been eager to leave. Deep in my heart there lives a teenage boy with a roadmap spread open on the hood of an old Jeep. The earth around him sings, leaves clap, snow whispers and sunshine lifts it’s melody. But he is tone deaf to it all. Wanderlust must be the eighth deadly sin, for it rips us from the ointment of heaven that place tries to rub on our dry, and cracking skin; it draws us from the infinitude of staying, from the urgency of breathing in the same air as it changes with the seasons, seeing the same view from our bedroom windows as it’s warmed by sun and blanketed in snow.

And most nights sitting on with that lonely shrine I find myself distracted within minutes, ripped away in spirit then body. I am always anywhere but here, always leaving before I’ve even arrived.

Which is why I return to the shrine. Night after night, I return, I sit and I allow it to hold me, whisper to me. The teenager in me flirts with a girl named Narnia; she’s got a glimmer of loss in her eyes but hope glows on her cheeks. And when I’m there I feel it, feel the place.

And I just think: I could be here forever.

Someday, Narnia tells the boy, you will.

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Like Rivers Through The Heart

Like Rivers Through The Heart

 

 

 

We drove up to Vermont this past week. Our route took us through rolling foothills splattered with the colors of a postcard’s autumn countryside. When we exited the highway we took a side street that ran parallel to a stream: a wide, shallow yet babbling mountain river that wove its way through trees and into the valley, beyond where I could see.

I’ve had trouble reading my Bible lately. I’m inspired by stories of men and women who’ve gone before me, whose devotional lives were stapled in place by text, as if it were as comforting and reassuring as their favorite novel or sitting down for a cup of tea with an old friend. I want that kind of faith but lately it hurts a bit too much.

It started as I was writing a note to friend who’d just lost a loved one to cancer. And I had a migraine. And with pain in my head and pain on the receiving end of my words, I wasn’t sure what I could possibly say. I figured the Psalms might be the cure. But they weren’t. I read them; I tried. I knocked but there wasn’t an answer; the door creaked open but the cabin was empty and the light in the fireplace slowly dying. They weren’t alive this time; they weren’t streams of living water flowing into my quenched and yearning soul. They were just words, words like Band-Aids for a gushing artery.

But when I looked out my car window at the river twisting its way through the valley, I felt a twinge of something I might call “hope.” For the river carried change. And change is something I can relate too, something I can see. Change is what I feel when a migraine hammers away at the inside of my skull, when a cancerous growth steals life from someone who was once standing, breathing, talking, loving and loved.

And I have little tolerance these days, if I ever had any, for theologians and Christians of ivory abstraction who say the key to faith is something like ‘trusting in the Lord’. Such notions are space shuttles observing the ramifications of a ground war. And vague instructions on faith have proven about as helpful to me as my peers in grade school were upon learning I didn’t know how to whistle:

“It’s not that hard,” they told me.

“How do you do it?” I asked.

“You just whistle.”

I pray for the grace to handle these sentiments, to see the heart behind them. But (it seems to me) that they take no account of pain, cancer, death, rivers and valleys. They take no account of life, so I can no longer take account of them beyond a soft nod and an immediate effort to shift the conversation.

But, at the same time, we should not pay much heed to our doubts, the theologian Karl Barth once said. And I have to think he wrote this it while sitting by a river.

Because with change the river also carries constancy. For rivers, as Wendell Berry notes, leave marks but bear none, though the rocks, shorelines and fallen trees penetrate and cut into them at every opportunity. And as it flows the river licks and soothes the rocks as it passes over them. It is always moving, always departing, and yet always remains. And every moment gives birth to the next.

And, like rivers, faith carries me and lifts me even when I wish to remain untouched, to depart from its path and remain on the banks of my doubts and pain, watching as the waters move past. Faith may run dry, it may overflow, but it always is: always changing, moving and flowing, even if it’s just a trickle, a dry riverbed or a fossil testifying that the waters were there years ago but have since shifted its course. Either way, the river is still there, somewhere, though maybe beyond what I can still see. Faith is there: flowing, changing, staying, like rivers through the heart of everything that I am and could hope to be.

And as we drove along its bank I found solace in the view of a river out my window.

For the river carries me, beyond the mountains, down the valley, weaving it’s way through the foothills into the setting sun. All things merge into one eventually, Norman Maclean wrote. And for a moment from the window of the car, as my eyes followed the river carrying me in its fold, I could feel every part of me merging with that One. And faith trickled into its center, babbling over stones of time and cutting its way through canyons of pain and pleasure, plains of doubt, valleys of wondrous assurance.

Faith was always there, like rivers through the heart.

 

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