And yet…

I happened upon one of Wendell Berry’s poems from Sabbaths 1998 when I was actually looking for something else. And just like Krista Tippett says, there was “the same wild gratitude I know inside myself when poetry intrudes and demands I let it take up space.” Space to muscle out my clenched jaw and heavy chest, one more time.

Wendell Berry has a way with words. His poetry demands to be read more than once and lived with for a time. His words amplify both an overwhelming sadness and unearth a well of joy at the same time in me. Living is not true in only one telling.

I copied the first and the almost last stanza of the poem in my commonplace notebook, thinking that those were the words that made sense for me. I wanted to skip the middle, even though I don’t believe that is an honest practice. The last stanza had a bit more resolution than I was ready to bear, just yet.  And so Wendell Berry begins,

By expenditure of hope,

Intelligence, and work,

You think you have it fixed.

 And I thought I knew what I was doing, being brave, taking a risk. leaving my career, as I knew it. It seemed right, even freeing to go—to pursue the pinnacle of degrees and experience an academic life that I thought more fitting my gifts. It was a wild and crazy idea that seemed to work.

Things fell into place. I was offered a teaching assistantship that paid my way. A house in an ideal spot landed in our lap. Mitch had a challenging interim for a few years and then another one followed literally blocks away from our house. We fell into the rhythm of that place. I finished the degree and opportunities eventually unfolded.

I found a job, or maybe a job found me, in a series of events serendipitously linked. A Frederick Buechner Writing Workshop, the integration of faith and learning, the lull of picturesque academia, the call of the mountains, the move to a perfect house, the friendly neighbours…

It is unfixed by rule.

Within the darkness, all

Is being changed, and you

Also will be changed.

 What I thought I had fixed, wasn’t, even me.  I’m not actually sure what the rules are. I am sure it might not matter. The truth is that nothing stays the same.  All is being changed. In the land of words, I believe this is aptly called a continuous tense that is both in progress and ongoing.

Then another miraculous turn, this place where we are now finding us—that’s how it happened. We didn’t look; we did take a leap, Mitch more easily than me. I agonized over each step that I made steeper by looking too far ahead, trying to micro-manage each part that required I let go of that security. I tried again to fix things, to meld them into something I didn’t know.

That’s the beginning of the middle of the poem for me, the part I wanted to skip over.

Now I recall to mind

A costly year: Jane Kenyon,

Bill Lippert, Philip Sherrard,

All in the same spring dead,

So much companionship

Gone as the river goes.

 And my good workhourse Nick

Dead, who called out to me

In his conclusive pain

To ask my help. I had

No help to give. And flood

Covered the cropland twice.

By summer’s end there are

No more perfect leaves.

*

Notice that asterisk.  Wendell Berry penned the asterisk between stanzas. I think that is where the author, the wise man, suspected I might continue to fill in my own recalling of a costly year. This is where the unspeakable pain, the deaths of illusion and relationship had promised a fix. This is where the unspeakable joy of sharing deep sorrow and the promise of new life illuminates sadness in the midst of possibility. I’m learning to name those names, as Wendell Berry is able to do, but I’m not quite ready for the last stanzas, yet.  Yet, they continue:

But won’t you be ashamed

to count the passing year

At its mere cost, your debt

Inevitably paid?

 

For every year is costly,

As you know well. Nothing

Is given that is not

Taken, and nothing taken

That was not first a gift.

 I, too, am recalling a costly year, from the end of October through the next October—so much change. So this middle, the gifts that are given and taken, darkness and light all mixed together is my life.   Scott Russell Sanders reminds that these gifts cannot be summoned; pain and suffering are measured against the sheer exuberant flow of things. 

 The gift is balanced by

Its total loss, and yet,

And yet the light breaks in,

Heaven seizing its moments

That are at once its own

And yours. The day ends

And is unending where

The summer tanager,

Warbler, and vireo

Sing as they move among illuminated leaves.

And yet. And yet…

risky and holy business.

Read again poem VI from Sabbath 1998 and skip my own story in between. Read the words more than once and live with them for a time. Maybe you are ready to hear the song.

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