Saturday, April 23, 2011
I have before me a little book that measures approximately four and three-eighths inches by seven inches. It is bound in red Morocco leather with five raised bands on its spine; it is sewn on cords that make the raised bands and these testify to its extreme age. There are still remnants of gold leaf on the scuffed binding and its edges are marbled in blue and yellow and red. There is no title because it was made to be a "common-place" book or a diary, which, indeed, it is.
On the fly-leaf inscribed in faded brown copperplate is the following
the Reverend Octavius Winter
and on the pages that follow are a collection of daily personal thoughts, notes of events, quotes from old authors, and prayers and meditations. Occasionally there are snippets of newspaper notices pinned to the page, the pins rusty and causing rust stains to the pages to and fro. On one such page is such a clipping that reads
"Deceased on August 5th, Margaret, infant child of the Reverend Octavius Winter, and wife, Louisa, of Hawley."
Between these pages is a lock of fine blond hair, presumably from the child.
Sometimes, the page is covered with Scripture texts. Here is an example.
"Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord."
"The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord."
"I know, O Lord, that the way of a man is not in himself, it is not in man himself to direct his steps."
"Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding; in all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy steps."
"His trust is in the Lord, none of his steps shall slide."
At other times, there are notes on his preaching:
" Dec. 6, 1801. Morning at Shelbyville meeting. Preached from I Peter 3:18. The wheels of the chariot did drive heavily."
"January 10th, 1802. Hawley. Very cold from a week of hard frost. The meeting-house very cold; the air blue with breath. Preached with liberty from Romans 8:28-30. The people very joyful despite the conditions. 'Bless the Lord, O my soul.'"
After losing the child mentioned before, the Reverend Winter went through several months of conflict with his church board. During this time, his wife, again pregnant, was in bad health. Four months into this pregnancy, she appears to have miscarried. She continued in poor health and at the end of the year, died. In the middle of a single left-hand page with nothing else recorded on this or the facing page is this:
"November 22nd, 1802. Buried today beside our dead child my dear companion, Louisa Day Winter, aged, 31 years and two months. 'She was life and light to me.' We were married for six years and seven months. In hope of the Resurrection."
This is surrounded with a faded inked border, once black.
Six months later, the church board terminated him as pastor of the church.
"May 26th, 1803. Today, I am relieved of my duties as pastor of the church in Hawley. I have no prospects, though I am told that one of the churches in the Ohio country is seeking a minister. I am thrown on the Sovereignty and Grace of God to provide for me and my two remaining children. Lamentations 3:21-24. His Will be done."
There is not another entry until November 1803.
"Nov. 22nd, 1803. On this dark day one year ago I buried her who was my life and light. Light has gone out of my life in the succeeding months. I despair of life and fight dark suggestions from the evil one to end my life. My faith and the needs of my small children aid me in resisting this temptation. But, my faith is without comfort and consolation. The Lord has deserted me according to the meaning of the Puritan divines. He has not forsaken me, but He has withdrawn His sensible Presence from my consciousness. Is this because of some sin or unfaithfulness on my part? I am like a dead man, like a bottle in the smoke. 'Return, O Lord, how long!'"
Then follows this prayer
"O Lord my God, Thou art my God.
I have trusted in Thee all my life.
I have loved Thee in prosperity and adversity.
I am sinful and weak.
I am frail and mortal.
Thou hast taught me these things.
Thou hast taught me to speak these things.
But, I am Thy servant.
From my mother's womb,
Thou hast been my God.
Lord, I have trusted Thee
And Thou hast not met me in the way.
I have trusted Thee
And Thou hast deceived me.
Thou has taught me to say,
"in all thy ways acknowledge him,"
And Thou hast not directed my steps.
Thou has promised to instruct
And teach me in the way I should go,
But, Thou hast not guided me with Thine eye.
I have trusted Thee,
And Thou hast crushed me.
I have loved Thee,
And Thou hast made my light darkness.
I am ready to die,
And Thou art not nigh.
My soul is impaled on the horn of a unicorn
And Thou hearest not my cries.
'My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?'"
This is the last entry in my beautiful little book. The rest of its foxy pages are empty. This is fitting. It is proper that this man's anguish should be testified to by the emptiness of what remains. As such, it is a dark book, but a holy book.
Sometimes our anguish and abandonment are the last word. There is nothing else to be said. Let the empty pages bear their silent witness to our loneliness and despair.
But, while despair may have the penultimate word, it must not have the final word. It does not have the final word in the life of the Reverend Octavius Winter.
For there is another book, of the same size and binding, this one dated, "1805."
Thursday, April 21, 2011
At a deepening
Of the Isinglass River
I lie down in stones and tea-colored water,
I think: be careful, do not say
The the bones of that word mend slowly.
This lovely little piece by the New Hampshire poet, Marie Harris, has plunged itself into me seizing my heart in its painful and powerful grip.
In thirty-two words (thirty-one if you count "tea-colored" as one word) it manages to touch some of our deepest human longings, fears, memories, and hopes. It catches us in our many acts of longing and fear, where we are balanced between the child-like hope for joy and the all too adult condition of recollection of shattered expectations.
And, it manages to cut into one of the profoundest and most atavistic yearnings of the human heart: The yearning for Home. This longing is the longing for the lost Eden of our primeval parents. It is the yearning of Israel by the waters of Babylon for the Holy Land. It is the homesickness of Wendell Berry in all his work for the land and people he glimpsed in his childhood seventy years ago. It is my own mental geography that tends backwards to the red clay and ancient post oaks of Love County, Oklahoma.
To state this theologically, we would be compelled to say that home-longing is the human heart's longing for God. "Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee" Augustine. We are strangers and aliens- to ourselves, to others, to our place on the earth. Our anxieties, fears, sleeping dreams, and waking fantasies all tell us this. Our best writers (like Ms. Harris) confirm our suspicions. Listen to Stevenson
Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This is the verse you 'grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter, home from the hill.
Which echos Job's anguished cry, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, naked shall I return thither!" Job (like Stevenson), the earthy man, made of earth and returning to earth, sees her as his final earthly home.
All of which makes me think of Easter, of Resurrection Sunday.
The message of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is this: embodiment, earthiness, corporeality are our original state, the state for which we long, and a new embodiment is promised us in the reality and corporeality of his resurrection. The grave (our entombment in the earth) is not the final home of the Christian. What is promised is a new life, an embodied life, in a new heavens and a new earth where righteousness will finally pervade all things.
In this promise is hope: hope that assuages our longings, fears, and nightmares, hope that supports us in our homesickness, hope that assures us that death in all its forms shall be swallowed up in the victory of Jesus.
O Death, where is thy sting?
O Grave, where is thy victory?
The sting of death is sin,
And the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God who giveth us the victory
Through our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is the promise and assurance of Home.
Saturday, April 9, 2011
Funny little man,
Calling up his dreams,
Staring down his doubts.
Counting up his triumphs,
Discounting all his routs.
Adding up his score-card
With his ego hanging out.
The Blessed God who made him
Smiles, at times, no doubt
At this funny little man He made
And his silly mental bouts.
Funny little man,
Staring at his face,
Sizing up his snout.
Quirky little grimaces,
Kinky little pouts,
Funny little person
With probos sticking out.
The Blessed God who made him
Laughs, at times, no doubt
At His funny little man he made
With his puffy little snout.
Funny little man,
Taking readings on his torso,
With its silly little spout.
Laying down its measure,
Sizing up its clout,
Funny little pear-shaped pot
With its spigot poking out.
The Blessed God who made him
Grins, at times, no doubt,
At the funny little man He made
With his funny, runny spout.
Thursday, April 7, 2011
In the musty, musky cool
In the blue-gray half-dark
Of sanctuary, asylum
From northwest winds
That were the wrath of God-
But on hell-hot August days
Sanctuary became larder, pantry
With row upon shining row
Of greens and reds and ochers
Of beans and okra
Tomatoes and corn-
The only cool place in their world-
Sanctuary of another sort.
Across the mealy floor
And cow-hide bottomed chairs
Creaked and sighed.
Coal oil mixed with damp
And all mixed in a child's nose
With an old crone's
Powder, sweat, and snuff.
And unnameable things
As animal as a dog's damp pelt
When he buried his face in it.
Holding a few faded memories
Of a ragged courtship
And a rugged marriage:
Sweet memories soured by
"that's my husband, Mr. Smith's first wife."
Memories captured in images
Pressed within the shiny hard-shelled album
Its stiff, foxy pages coming loose
In the damp.
Fading sepia faces with eyes
That never faded in their button-blackness
That never blinked or smiled:
Dour stern men
With tired, severe women
Buttoned to the tops of throats
On hell-hot days.
Mouths razor slits dividing faces in half.
Black button eyes
That still burn into the mind
After half a century.
Women standing, always standing
Men sitting upright and stiff
In cow-hide bottomed chairs
(Giving rise to ribald jokes
Whispered under whiskey breath.)
"Mr. Smith" (always Mr. Smith)
"John Calvin Smith"
"Some called him 'Black John'
But I never cared for that."
"1857 to 1936"
"Gone, but not forgotten."
History, family, belonging, blood.
The hide of the chair bottom
With red Hereford hair
Still clinging to parts not sat on-
"My husband, Mr. Smith,
Went to feed that creature
On a cold, frosty morning in March.
The thing, being stroppy
In its hunger and its cold
Turned its bad-morning-mood
On its owner...
Pinned him to the cow-lot floor
Until with prodigious
Swearings and cursings
To raw for female ears
Fought off the wild beast of Ephesus
With a feed-scoop shovel,
And covered with red clay and cow shit
Went promptly into the Big House
For his .41 Colt's revolver.
And, returning to the beast-
Now feeling better for its morning romp-
Without compunction or doubt,
Shot the creature dead
With one brass cartridge
Its deadly nose pewter-colored.
Turning away from the blue-gray smoke
That filled the air with an acrid taste
He called to his hired men
Staring with saucer-eyes from their perch
On the corral fence,
'Butcher the son-of-a-bitch
And bottom my storm cellar chairs
With his hide!'"
I, the child, with the old woman
Sat in those chairs
Tugging at their remaining hair
Marveling at their feel and smell
Touched now forever with the wonder of their Story
Dangling legs from its hairy ledge.
Old woman singing.
Wispy, haunty airs
"In the Sweet By and By"
Old and forgotten
Like the songs
Old and ignored
In the daily routine
The endless drudgery of
With the small boy,
In the sweat and grunts
Of the daily work.
In songs, stories, smells,
And nasty words.
Once she unbuttoned her cotton bodice
From the throat down
Pulled her withered breast
Out for him to see, to touch.
Her talcum powder filling its wrinkles
Transforming it into a strange, fascinating
Like a snow-ball cookie
From a brown paper bag.
And then, abruptly stopped
As the demand became regular and insistent.
The child, as children do,
Saw more, understood better
Than grownups would allow.
She lay songless,
On a morning when not even a crow
She lay speechless
Rendering grown, stern men
Men, who had often said,
"Don't cry," to the child,
Cried with the embarrassing abandon
Of weeping men.
The funeral men came
In their shiny, black car
And carried her out of the Big House
Under a candle-wick cover
With blue satin letter
Advertising their trade
And soliciting the same.
Letters that followed the contours
Of the slight, withered form under them,
Letters that were an ill-mannered
Waste of money and effort
To those whose mother and granny
They mocked in royal colors.
No royalty here.
Calico and wool
And funny, dark stockings
Rolled to the bottoms of her knees.
Clothed in a royalty
She would had sniffed at with contempt
Not merely to the top of the throat
But over the head.
"Why over her head?" the child had asked
And received no answer.
Out of the house
They rolled her
Into the unforgiving cold
(a cold that froze the ground to stone
so that the funeral had to be postponed
until equipment could be brought in).
"Gone, but not forgotten."
The cold, hollow church house
Loud with even the smallest sounds
Pine planking on floors and walls
Varnished and shining.
A Methodist church.
Plain- but not so plain
As the Campbellite one-
A picture of "Our Savior" in front
Looking sad and sweet
For the occasion.
So she ended in the Methodist church,
She, who by degrees of examination, had been
And a Baptist again.
Then a follower of the Wesleys
And their hymnal,
For she loved singing most.
The reedy singing.
The weedy sermon.
Young and strong
And smelling of Old Spice
Lifted me over the coffin's edge
To see the child's companion.
All I remember
Is the black mustache
On the wrinkled, upper lip.
She had no smell at all,
Nothing I could identify as her
But the fragrance of carnations was strong.
Then, into the cruel cold
To the iron-hard burying ground.
With its gaping red wound in the earth
Beside the monolith covered with letters
He could read,
But not the words,
Except for "Smith"
Which was his name, too.
The blue-gray stone topped-
Where snow had been brushed away-
With two hands clasped
(which he could read)
My Papa with snow-white head down
Snow against snow
White against white
Weeping again for his Mama.
"Now I am not the only motherless child."
And with a child's selfish abandon
And aloofness from all pain
Not its own
I began to run and play
Among the tombstones
Sticking my tongue to
Their frozen surfaces
Till its own surface was raw and unfeeling.
I played among the dead
Until an old woman dressed like
A big, shining crow
Caught me by the coat collar
And told me in a shrill hiss
That the dead are troubled
By the living
Walking on their graves.
And then home
To the Big House.
To the smell of fried chicken
And cakes and pies.
To laughter and
To unusual displays of affection.
The fire turning
The andirons cherry red-
Irons forged in Black John's forge
From wagon tires
By one of his hired men-
Heating the room
Almost to the back edges
And far corners.
With stomachs full
And the exhaustion of
So much emotion spent
The child is forgotten again
For a time.
Left to himself
Seeking his friend
He goes to the back room.
As so many times before.
Out of respect for the dead.
These things could wait for another day.
Whispering for her
In the blue-gray dusk.
Calling for her in the cold
That turned his breath into a blue delight
Of smoke or steam
His child's brain
Grasping, but losing.
Catching, but dropping
The fact of her absence.
When, at last,
He sees the cavity left by
Her rigid body in the feather bed
Only days before-
The concavity covered now
With sagging quilts.
"Granny?" he whispers.
Peering under the covers
He sees that she is not here.
But, smelling her again-
Her sweat and lavender-
He climbs into the cold space
Carved out days before
By her suffering,
And, then, by her dying,
And pulling the heavy quilts
To the top of his throat
In the presence
Of all that is left of her.