“you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls”
We have arrived at those muddy, brown days between winter and spring. When I cross the yard to the chicken coop, it feels as if I am walking on a sponge. We have had a few warmer days and a few sunnier days, but it is not yet clear to me if the damage of this winter can be undone.
Somehow I find it harder to believe in spring the closer it comes.
My daughter is learning about the Holocaust in school. Every afternoon she shows me some newly acquired fact, as if she half believes that this time, this time, I will contradict her teacher. I will say, No, no, it wasn’t as bad as that. Instead, I only ever say yes. Yes, it’s true.
Here is what she does not say: How do you go on living in a world where such things have happened? Still happen?
Here is what I do not say: I don’t know.
As a writer, I pick up the pieces. Even the ugly, broken pieces. I arrange them and rearrange them, and I search for hidden meaning. I find patterns, and they always say the same thing. They say, Look! Here is something beautiful. Here is good news.
Except that recently, I can’t seem to find the pattern. The broken pieces remain only broken pieces.
They are so many. They are so sharp.
Because it is Lent, we begin each Sunday service with The Decalogue rather than a hymn. We hear the list of God’s ten commands, and they are like stones that form a wall that enclose a garden.
Gardens grow best within the shelter of a wall, but we have torn down the wall with our own hands.
Perhaps we must first listen to the bad news if we hope ever to hear the good.
Perhaps it is sorrow for all the broken pieces and all the tumbled stones that gives us courage to stand up. To rise up, leave the sackcloth and ashes, and go searching for our new name.
Our Easter feast began the day before, on Saturday morning. One hundred or so neighbors. Two thousand or so eggs. Warm sunshine and hot coffee. Conversation and sticky children.
Or maybe it began earlier that week. When my sister and her four children tumbled, along with the crayons and crumpled napkins, from their minivan. A three-day road trip from Florida suddenly ended.
It is Easter, and we have feasted. On cousins sprouting like weeds and epic games of Monopoly. On baby chickens discovering bugs and grass and baby lettuces discovering rain.
We have feasted on hard-boiled eggs turned somewhat unappetizing shades of blue and my mother’s recipe for Greek chicken.
But mostly, we have feasted on time. On moments stretching into days spent at the table side-by-side with family.
Family, for us, has always been feast or famine. Separated by miles, our mailing addresses like stars in a far-flung constellation, we do not relate casually. There is no dropping by. No Sunday lunches then home again. No Christmas gifts delivered in person. No grandparents to babysit for date night.
We have only not enough (telephone calls and emails) or too much (three daily cycles of the dishwasher and four of laundry just to keep the show running).
We know Lenten hunger, and we know Easter fullness.
Feast days leave little space for story-making. Not storytelling. There is time for that as we sit at table. Storytelling is a necessary part of celebration.
But story-making is born of hunger rather than plenty. It is our longing that reveals the contours of new dreams and new stories. Because we hunger, because we do not have, because we suffer, we search for meaning like desperate sailors search for land.
We search for cool blue in desert wastes. We search for Kelly green in stubborn snow.
In winter, we toss in our sleep, and we dream of spring.
In spring, we sleep dreamlessly and wake refreshed.
“For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
Today, I glimpsed the first haze of pink on the old magnolia tree that towers over one corner of our yard. It is a magnolia tree worthy of a fairy-tale palace, but it presides over a chicken coop and a child’s yellow plastic swing. In summer it becomes the world’s largest shade umbrella, but in April it is a miracle. Too impossibly beautiful to be true.
I have witnessed this tree in bloom only once. I have waited eleven months to bear witness for a second time, but I am scheduled to leave town tomorrow for five days.
I can hardly bear it. Five days of good books and good talk and good friends, but I would trade all of it to be there the very moment the first pink flower opens. I imagine that if I am there I will finally solve a great mystery. If I stand still, and I do not blink, perhaps I can determine once and for all whether the flowers open or whether they alight on the branches like a flock of pink birds.
Last year, I blinked and became sure a great crowd of delicate rose-tinted wings had settled in the branches overnight.
Set your mind on things above. Those were the words I remember printed on the postcards and posters, magnets and bookmarks in the Christian bookstore I used to visit as a child. I do not remember any books in that store. But I remember Precious Moments figurines, and I remember those words.
Even as a child, I mistrusted them. And not only because they showed up on magnets meant to secure grocery lists to refrigerator doors.
They are good and true words. They are Scripture words, but they seemed at odds with my own way of seeing. As long as I can remember, I have been taken with the miniature flowers blooming in the crack of a sidewalk. With acorn caps like fairy hats. With the hollow spot in the trunk of the mulberry tree, just the right size for my small china dog.
In other words, I have always seen worlds at my feet. I have always seen infinity under a magnifying glass.
And if this great “above” is the blankness of the sky, if it is only a screen onto which I project my preconceived ideas about the Christ who is holding everything together, then I will stick with the things below. Not money or plans. Not ambition or to-dos. But the things we pass by in our rush toward all that does not matter.
Dead, brown grass beginning to creep with green.
Daffodil leaves like bunny ears reaching just a bit higher every day.
And even the heartbreak of tulip leaves chewed to the quick by hungry deer.
If I must set my mind on some thing above, I will not let it float too high. I will set it just there, no higher than the highest branch of the world’s most beautiful magnolia tree.
I will set it there, and remember what the stories say. That we began to walk with God in a garden. That Jesus the Christ gave the thief on the cross a great promise: Today you will walk with me in a walled garden, a paradise.
And I will turn my eye toward eternity in the very spot where eternity begins.
Which is the ground, the ever-flowing, ever-renewing, ground beneath my feet.
I have seen the first snowdrop, and I have seen the first crocus. Eight baby chicks are cheeping away in our basement.
Seasons generally do not shift like clockwork. They tend to pour like water. But as I stood in the yard yesterday, ringing that snowdrop bell with the tip of my boot, I was fairly sure that this was spring’s beginning. It’s exact, precise beginning, almost perfectly timed with the calendar month.
If spring has a beginning, it also has an end. I could see it unfolding in my mind’s eye: from snowdrop and crocus through daffodil and tulip and all the way on to snap peas and strawberries ripening in June.
Three years ago, I was living in Florida. I had only ever been in Florida for vacation, and our two years living there felt like an endless vacation. Which sounds lovely but was, in reality, devastating. At a certain point in every vacation, if that vacation is long enough, you find that you want nothing more than to go home.
Living in Florida, I couldn’t put down roots no matter how hard I tried. And every day my longing for home grew. I cried rivers of tears, and my tears were a prayer: God, please bring me home.
Often when we pray, we have some object in mind. I certainly tend to. But this prayer was different. It was more desperate, and, I think, more powerful, because I had no idea where my home might be. I only knew I needed it. Wanted it. Could hardly live without it.
In my desperation, I began to hear God speak. There is a ballpoint-ink star in my Bible. It is dated three years ago, and it marks these words: “A fountain will flow out of the Lord’s house” (Joel 3:18). Beneath those words I wrote this: “Fountain House Dream.”
I can no longer remember what I thought those words meant. Quite likely I had no idea. Today, I am only beginning to understand them.
The day we found Maplehurst, our Pennsylvania home, we visited eight old houses. The only house with a fountain on the property was this one.
Since we moved here a year and a half ago, I’ve imagined that those words “Fountain House Dream” were a small but surprising confirmation. A way of knowing that, yes, this was the place for us.
But I am beginning to think these words mean more than that. I am beginning to think they point toward my true home, which is not opposed to this pile of bricks called Maplehurst, but somehow deeper. As if I could step inside my own front door, and into some other reality. Some endless place.
Spring at Maplehurst has a beginning and an end, and yet observing spring on this hilltop has shaped my imagination. I am waiting for my magnolia to bloom, but I am beginning to see a perpetual spring. Not simply a spring that returns every year, but a spring that is endless.
I believe we were made for spring. We were made for newness. We were made for a spring that never pours itself out. This is spring like a fountain. This is spring like living water – not still water – and it is always new.
I think, despite lying appearances, that we may be living in just this season. I think it began with the very first Easter. Jesus was a seed, planted in death and sprouted in resurrection, and that seed has been growing ever since.
And so it is spring, though early spring. We still see so much dead grass. But come further up. Come further in. The snow has gone. Spring showers water the earth. Flowers are stirring, and water is flowing.
Easter will soon follow. It is our annual reminder, our yearly celebration: we are living a spring with no end.
(photo by yours truly)
“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
– James Joyce, “The Dead”
I want to write spring stories. I want to write glorious endings.
And why not? I am the storyteller. I am the one tap, tapping at this keyboard.
I know that others in this world are observing spring’s first blooms and taking walks on balmy nights. My snow-covered world is not the world in which everyone is living. I am winter-weary, and I want to move on to other themes.
But I have ceded control over my own stories. I have made a promise (to myself? To God?) to write stories rooted in my own particular place and this particular time.
And this place is snow-covered.
And Easter is still a long way off.
On Saturday I walked the halls of a large art museum. I listened to echoes. I stared into the deep brown eyes of a woman who died in Egypt thousands of years ago. Her funeral portrait is lifelike. It hangs at eye level. She looked about my age. We might have been neighbors, I thought.
After that, each work of art seemed connected to some soul. The silversmith who worked the bracelet. The painter who held the brush. The model who sat for hours. The dancers portrayed in silk. The anonymous ones who wove the tapestry.
Each room revealed more of the vastness of our world. So many people live on planet earth today, I cannot even conceive of them all. But add in every life in every place and each time for all of history? My small mind struggles to believe there is a God who has known and loved each one.
The end of the story is always the best part. It is the place where the messiness of the middle is resolved. The point where pain is redeemed and suffering fades into something beautiful. It is the place where I want to pitch my tent.
But I do not think we are always given that choice.
I keep seeing one particular crucifix. I encountered it in one of the museum’s rooms of medieval art. It was carved out of wood and out of anguish. The Christ figure was elongated and emaciated. Reaching tendrils of warm wooden hair seemed to say that this is pain without end.
This is suffering unfinished.
I drove long miles between the art museum and my house, and I thought about the crucifix. The carving was small enough to hold with one hand, but I wanted it to be bigger. I felt the heaviness of all those lives, like shades in every corner of the galleries. I wanted Christ crucified to be big enough to heal every soul for all time.
And I wanted it finished.
As I drove, snow began to tumble through the air. I could see it churning in the light of streetlamps and headlights. As it dusted rooftops and cornfields, I could feel winter settling back in for a longer stay.
We privilege endings, but we live in the middle.
This place is snow-covered.
And Easter is still a long way off.
From my kitchen window I can see a blue plastic sled stranded at the top of a small hill.
Last year, our first spring at Maplehurst, we edged the hill on one side with blueberry bushes. We shored up the other side with an asparagus patch. We planted a peach tree and a cold-hardy fig like two flags at the top, but the kids have carved a downward path that manages, usually, to carry their sleds around their mother’s precious plants.
The snowcover on the hill is shrinking, and the sled is marooned. I can imagine it still sitting there in July, nearly forgotten in the weeds.
The sled I see clearly, but it is much harder for me to imagine July’s green abundance. Here, in early March, there are no signs of new life. Instead, the snow seems to be coughing up rusted buckets and wilted kickballs.
These hinge weeks between winter and spring are always ugly, but, thanks to February’s ice storm, this one is particularly awful. Brown grass and mud are mixed with splintered wood; our world looks as if it has only just survived some disaster.
From my kitchen window, I see a waste land.
The trees, still bare, no longer remind me of elegant bones against the sky. Instead, they look naked, and I am ashamed for them.
At church, it is the first Sunday of Lent. The cross carried in procession is veiled in purple, as if we cannot yet bear the sight of our redemption. Easter, like spring, is still too good to be true.
The reading from the Old Testament this day is from Genesis. Adam and Eve discover their nakedness, and they are ashamed.
This season I am following my friend Sue’s example and praying daily one simple prayer: Search me, God, and know my heart.
This prayer is simple and brief, but it isn’t easy to pray. It feels like a deliberate stepping out into the open with no clothes. Not even a fig leaf.
I thought this prayer would open my eyes to some sin. Instead, my eyes have been opened to something much more complicated.
T. S. Eliot describes it in his own meditation on a wasted, blasted land:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow …
Winter’s rest is melting away, and I am waking up to a great desire. And I find this terrifying. Exhilarating, too.
Spring won’t truly arrive until I have dreamed and ached to pick asparagus, blueberries, peaches and figs. First, the longing. Then, the feast.
And the new plans God has for my life can’t be realized unless I first recognize the desire planted in my heart. Certain dreams will never come true unless I first wake up and remember them. But to remember them enough to pray for them is to stand naked before God. There is no more hiding the depth of my desire. There is no shrinking from the fear that he will say no or not yet. Sometimes spring is interrupted by a killing freeze.
God is tugging me – and you – towards resurrection.
But the road is a cruel one.