Saturday, December 31, 2011
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?"
--Frances Cornford, To a Fat Lady Seen From the Train
New Year. Strange to even write: 2012. For months I will have to check myself. How in the world did we ever get to 2012? Who knows? My wife and I have been surrounded by boxes, trying to figure out what should go where in this new house. Discovering after more than twenty years away—that the little old town has changed—much. But haven’t we all. I expected the people at church to look the way they did twenty years ago. And, I am sure they have expected me to look much different that this bald headed old guy.
Stopping for a respite of trying to organize, celebrate Christmas, say goodbye to a multitude of friends and painfully adjusting to a new place—I have been reading a novel. The Postmistress by Sarah Blake. The title sounded a little corny—but I finally picked it up the other day and discovered that this woman can write.
She tells the story of a Postmistress in a tiny place called Franklin—but there’s a war going on and so she keeps skipping from the safety of the United States to London and Europe and the bombs that just kept falling. In London there is a war correspondent that works with Edward R. Murrow. Her words cross the ocean to the people back home. She’s good at what she does and she interviews people scared and wondering what the future will hold. She tells that when she was at Smith College that a noted reporter, Miss Martha Gellhorn came to speak. She talked about the Depression and she told heart-wrenching and riveting stories of the pain and suffering of so many people during those hard days. After listening to her very dark address one of the girls sarcastically asked, “What are we to do about all that?” Miss Gellhorn took her time to answer. “Pay attention,” she said, “For God’s sake, pay attention.”The correspondent never forgot those words and she had her eyes open to people and tragedy and triumph in this terrible days. I cannot get those words out my mind, “Pay attention.”
Remember that wonderful line in the play, Our Town when Emily who has died is given a chance to return home. She chose her 12th birthday. They can’t see her but she can see all that is going on. And finally she cries out, “I can’t take it anymore. It’s too painful. All that was going on while I was there and I didn’t even notice. Does anybody really ever see what is going on?” And the Stage Manager who is a character in the drama answers, “Yes, some do. Poets and a few others. Not many.” I’m paraphrasing the writer’s words but it seems to me that a good resolution for all of us would be to pay attention to what is going on around us.
I confess that many days I have just been sleepwalking through so many important things. So I want to open my eyes and see what is going on around me a little clearer. Sometimes it isn’t a pretty sight—take the Republican candidates that are beginning to spit and claw at each other. Look around you—the checker at the grocery store—your postman—the woman across the street trying desperately to move on after her husband’s sudden death this year. We had four movers working hard to move us out and then to move us in. I did something I hardly ever do. I asked them about their lives, their families, how long they had been in the moving business. When they finally got everything placed in our new home they lined up and hugged us. We should have been hugging them.
Pay attention folks. If we pay attention we might be able to help somebody down the road who needs a hand or maybe a hug. If we pay attention it might just save us from this self-centeredness that infects us all. If we pay attention I have a feeling that we will be warmer and kinder and somehow, for better or for worse, this New Year may be far richer than any of us really envisioned.
Sunday, December 25, 2011
Saturday, December 24, 2011
Friday, December 23, 2011
Every year, without fail she breezes into the house with her own two daughters. After lugging in suitcases, pillows and presents she asks the same question year after year. “Where’s the star?” Christmas would not be Christmas without that star. I used to think it was a foolish request hanging on to that old homemade star. But I have changed my mind.
We all need some ties to back there. We need some stack pole of remembering that sends us back, back toward yesterday and the past and our roots. What’s your star? Probably not a paste ornament. What is it that calls you back to what used to be with a tug and a pull that is almost magic? I have a buddy who keeps high on a shelf an old threadbare teddy bear. His Daddy bought it for him at the fair one time. They stood there looking at the wonderful stuffed animals and he pointed and his Daddy shook his head. The little boy burst into tears and snubbed and snubbed. Finally, the Father pointed to the bear, took out his billfold and handed the clerk the money. He has been dead, my friend said for forty years, yet that teddy bear is one of his most precious possessions. I have another friend that kept in his office pinned to his bookcase a pouch of chewing tobacco. He grew up in this little tiny cotton mill village and smoke breaks were few and far between. And so he took up Red Man. The man has written a score of books. He has taught hundreds of students. And he keeps that pouch of chewing tobacco as a reminder of how far he has come and how grateful he is. Several years ago I stopped by to see the old black lady that we would now call a Nanny. She kept my brother and me for years and loved us severely. Finding her tiny apartment, she told me she wanted to show me something. She opened a dresser drawer and pulled out something wrapped in tissue paper. She unfolded the paper and held up this slip. “Miz Ruth give me this slip. She always gave me the nicest presents.” She had never worn it but she kept that gift my long-dead mother had given her. She remembered.
Christmas is a time for stirring memories. Silver Bells. Silent Night. Santa Claus is coming to town. I’m dreaming of a white Christmas. O Come All Ye Faithful. But much, much more. The faces loom up before us. Name and those long dead and fun-filled times from our own crowded pasts. Christmas is a remembering time. Some hang the symbols of our memories on some Christmas tree. Some pack it away in tissue just because. Some place it carefully in a jewelry box and open it up from time to time and just smile. “Where’s the star?” Good question. Unpack it gently. Hang it high in your own way. And remember. Remember. Remember.
Sunday, December 4, 2011
Friday, December 2, 2011
Months ago when my cousin took his life, following the sad path of first his father and then his brother—so many of us were in shock. He left me a note. He wanted me to have his funeral. He wanted it to be in church I had served in Birmingham. And so fifty or sixty of us gathered to weep on a sunny October afternoon. One of my cousin’s nieces told me her family wanted a particular song played at the funeral service. Having had some terrible experiences with music at funerals I was dubious. But not this song. They had chosen Stephen Foster’s beautiful and plaintive: “Hard Times, Come Again No More.” The words go like this:
“Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh, hard times come again no more.”
And then the chorus:
"‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard times, hard times, come again no more.
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door,
Oh, hard times comes again no more.”
The words were written in 1854. It was a difficult time for the country. Though President Lincoln would not be elected until 1861—the war clouds that would bring on the Civil War were already forming. It was a restless time for the whole nation. And this was the setting of Stephen Foster’s song.
That song could have been a background for Isaiah 40. 1-11. God’s beloved were in Exile—at least the best and the brightest. Back home their temple had been ransacked and destroyed. Many of their old parents had been left behind. Many others had died in the wilderness somewhere between Israel and Babylon. God’s people were afraid. And one of their own, Isaiah began to speak. It was word of comfort. It was a promise that hard times would one day end. In the middle of that cursed desert, a wilderness—God would come. Valleys would be raised up, hills and mountains would be made low, the rough places—some called it rough ground—would be smoothed out. Isaiah was saying there will come a better day: hard times would come no more.
Our age is beset with negativism. The climate of our country is hostile. We are afraid of immigrants, of terrorists, of the economy. We are afraid of our pensions and health and a multitude of things. Some wonder if our best days are behind us. Ask that great horde without jobs and they will speak plainly.
And so we light two candles. Some call this foolishness and wishful thinking. But just as Foster’s song was written in a hard age, and Isaiah’s words emerged from a rocky soil—we dare to open the old book and listen closely. Even today—especially today. Could those old words do for us what they have done for so many others through the hard years of their lives?