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Archive for October, 2016

Kansas Ground

The memories I carry of Kansas are marked with the feel of grass and earth, of wind, of open, arching skies, of the chill night air pierced by starlight, and the figure of a gibbous moon, chasing me as I looked out the car window, the night going before and after.

There were summers setting fence with Grandpa. That cold Thanksgiving as I sat in the pickup while Dad drilled winter wheat. Football fields and back yards, mowing lawns, weeding gardens, dust and grit, and mud.

From the soil Grandpa brought forth wheat, and Grandma snapped beans. Cattle dropped their excrement over the pastures. Grasshoppers danced along the waving grass, parting right and left as we made our way through the fields. From pastures and fields, I dug up cast off pocket knives, and rusted cans, broken bottles and snipped bailing wire, the flotsam and jetsam falling from tractor and truck.

There were and are, always, things buried deep in the loam of the heart. Pain and sorrow borne in silence. Anger vented in the slamming of a gate. Secret wounds carried, burrow deep under ground, germinating through the rhythm of the seasons. Heart-soil fed with fingers outstretched under the covers in sleep, reaching, seeking connection; or the hand on the forearm laid flat on the dinner table, briefly touching, the fleeting pressure of the grasp; a sigh. Hearts separated by, yet woven together in, the same silence, vocabulary too pale for the vivid colors of the soul. A domestic life, fenced and bounded by the shared look in the quiet home, the ticking of the clock marking the moments of integration.

Ever the contrariness of soil offers the risk of barrenness. It is a chancy thing. The ground is tilled, the seed sown deep, the soil watered and fortified. Yet the blowing wind, the beating sun, the icy blast, may shrivel what the farmer seeks.

He returns to a barn that’s empty, and a house that’s cold. He drinks his bitter coffee, tepid and stale from the day’s pot. The food taken at table is taken alone. He settles in the bed, the weight of her next to him, silent, breathing. The night passes, their backs to one another.

In another home, the same silence, the same pains and sorrows. But though she has taken her meal earlier, his coming late for the harried parsing of the failing sunlight, she sits with him. He eats, drinks his iced coffee. They sit together in the quiet broken by the scrape and clank of knife and fork, the tinkling of the spoon against the Mason jar, stirring. She clears his spot at the table as he rises stiffly to finish his day.

What fruits are harvested from this fertile ground may not be known till the reaping. To some, the yield is heartache and loneliness, the cyclic round of longing and indifference. To others a fecund grace imparts union, connection, the weaving together of sinew and joints, making of two the one. From the sweat of sunburnt brows comes love’s feast, and devotion, the cradling of one’s heart in the other’s hands. The emptying of one’s chest brings the filling of one’s heart. The joy the sweeter for having been broken. The harvest plentiful, watered by tears and sacrifice.

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It was early, before sunrise, the morning of Wilbur’s funeral, and Grandma was awake, moving about in the kitchen, in her pajamas and bathrobe. She asked me if I wanted come coffee, and from a fresh pot already made, she poured me a cup. I sat at the kitchen table, and she joined me with her own cup of coffee. For the next hour, Grandma told me stories of how she and Grandpa had met, of barn dances, farm life, young romance and hard times.

It was just the two of us. As she talked, I entered with her the stories of her life with Grandpa. Although Grandpa had died more than a decade before, my own memories of Grandpa combined with the stories Grandma was telling.

A few months after that conversation, I found some genealogy documents about the Healy family, and there hidden away in the details of marriages, births, deaths, and hundreds of names of parents, siblings, children, out of nowhere a name leapt to my attention: Clifton Dwight. The name, Clifton, quite literally, appeared out of nowhere among all names listed in the genealogy. Next came Clifton Arthur. Finally, there was Grandpa: Clifton Fitzroy. I knew the rest. My dad was next. I had always been told I was the fifth Clifton. Grandma and Great Aunt Bessie were good to remind me of this all through my childhood. Here, in my thirties, I discovered that chain of names.

Shortly after my father died a year ago, I began to pray the memorial prayers for the dead. These prayers end with chanting, “Memory eternal.” It is a prayer. A plea not simply for everlasting renown, but for everlasting well-being.

Stories and memory, these are the things that make us persons. We do not know who we are apart from stories, the memories of our own lives, and those memories we inherit through story from our parents, our grandparents, our larger families. We do not merely remember events and feelings. We weave those memories together in a narrative. We are the stories we tell ourselves.

The Gospel does not come to us in propositions and syllogisms. It is not a summa, it is a story. Indeed, it is the Story. That is to say, it is the Story that transforms all stories. Our lives are the same group of events, the same set of dramatis personae, but now the plot has changed. In the muddled Middle, there is a twist, a surprise. We see our story differently. It is now part of a larger Story, a subplot that has been woven into the whole. Our memories are reordered. We see things differently.

It is not simply that our own personal stories are reordered and retold. It is that our own stories change. Our plots go in a new directions. We, and all who are ours, become stories in a larger whole. We become part of a community, a community who has its Story. The Story of the Church, the community brought into God himself, the Holy Trinity, by grace. A Story whose beginning stretches from the foundation of the world into a future we do not now see, and a way of everlasting well-being in which our memories, and our stories, will never fade.

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