There are days I go out looking for words and, then, there are days that words come out looking for me, or at least stand hitchhiking by the road I’m on such that I can’t help but stop and pick them up. Today was a hitchhiking day. On my usual wandering through The Writer’s Almanac, I found this poem by Julie Cadwallader-Staub, who (from what I could find) lives in Vermont, works for a nonprofit, and writes poetry. Today was her first time to be selected by Garrison Keillor, and I am so glad he chose to let her poem flag me down this evening.
The air vibrated
with the sound of cicadas
on those hot Missouri nights after sundown
when the grown-ups gathered on the wide back lawn,
sank into their slung-back canvas chairs
tall glasses of iced tea beading in the heat
and we sisters chased fireflies
reaching for them in the dark
admiring their compact black bodies
their orange stripes and seeking antennas
as they crawled to our fingertips
and clicked open into the night air.
In all the days and years that have followed,
I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced
that same utter certainty of the goodness of life
that was as palpable
as the sound of the cicadas on those nights:
my sisters running around with me in the dark,
the murmur of the grown-ups’ voices,
the way reverence mixes with amazement
to see such a small body
emit so much light.
The phrase that made me pull over and stop was “that same utter certainty of the goodness of life” because I’m acutely aware of the flow of sadness and struggle in the lives of so many folks around me these days. And I’m also aware of my propensity to allow the minutiae of my life to build up into a layer of funk and frustration that blinds me from gratitude. Our friends Lori and Terry came over for dinner last night. Lori was talking about the caladiums starting to bloom in their yard and Terry, who had spent the day power washing the mold and mildew off the side of their house, said he didn’t see the flowers because he was too fixated on the “gunk.”
“Once you start looking for it, you can get obsessed,” he said.
But he had his harmonicas with him and I pulled out my guitar and we played and sang our way to a couple of cicada moments, telling stories and sharing laughter late into the evening, giving us a chance to brush up against the goodness and lay the gunk aside, even if only for a few hours.
One of the questions I regularly ask myself is, “Why does my faith matter to me?” Why am I a Christian, a believer, a follower of Jesus? What difference does it make? (Perhaps that last one is better asked, “What difference do I let it make?”) For all of the great sweeping answers I might give about the fate of the world, I’m mostly asking on a day-t0-day level: what does it matter that I am a Christian while I chop celery and onions?
The poet reminded me of the answer: that same utter certainty of the goodness of life.
I’m not claiming hope as a uniquely Christian possession, and I am saying, to paraphrase an old hymn, my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus. (Wow. I’m not sure this blog has ever sounded quite that evangelical.) One of the underpinning message of the Incarnation is it is good to be human. We were birthed out of God’s imagination, breathed into existence as evidence of that same utter certainty of the goodness of life. Jesus came into this world as a human being to call us to be fully human: full of grace and gratitude, awake to all that God has for us to see and do. That sense of goodness doesn’t disregard the suffering or overlook the grief, but it does say I am here to do more than get mired down in the details or let my heart get covered over with gunk.
In my ramblings, I’m afraid I might be weaving two or three strands into a confusing cord (chord?), so I want to be clear. I am, as I said, aware of several close to me who are hurting deeply for various and very serious reasons. I’m not saying they are covered with gunk. I am saying the poem today did a little power washing of its own to remind me how easy it is for my eyes to get gunked up such that I can’t see those who need so desperately for me to remember I can be a carrier of compassion and redemption, should I choose to be the human being I was created to be. I, like the cicadas and the fireflies, have a chance to offer a glimpse of that utter goodness to loved ones sitting in the dark if I am willing to look at my life as more a gift and a call and less as a series of frustrations, which is another way of saying I can choose to incarnate my faith, to let reverence mix with amazement. Or not.
I woke up this morning with an old hymn in my head and found myself singing in my mind:
stand up stand up for Jesus
ye soldiers of the cross
life high the royal banner
ye must not suffer loss
from victory unto victory
his army shall he lead
till every foe is vanquished
and Christ is Lord indeed
The odd thing is we didn’t sing that hymn last night and the whole battle metaphor doesn’t do much for me spiritually. With all my heart I know we must suffer loss after loss after loss if we stand up and follow Jesus. My faith isn’t worth much if it’s focused on looking for a fight. I’m grateful, then, that this poem flagged me down in the waning hours of this early evening and asked me to hear a different song, a cicadian rhythm of redemption accompanied with a firefly light show inviting me to welcome the gathering dark with reverence and amazement.
You’re welcome to ride along; there’s plenty of room.
P.S. — There are new recipes here and here.
this is very helpful and encouraging. i must print it.
As someone who witnessed your compassion, Milton, the first time I met you – this entry means even more. I can only say this is exactly what I needed to read today. When those I’m close to are hurting so much, I feel their pain, even internalize it myself, and at times I can become paralized…
I needed to read and remember this-
“I can choose to incarnate my faith, to let reverence mix with amazement. Or not.”
Thank you, Milton,
I thank God for your rambilings….
Loved the entry today Milton! My family and I are in a sense covered in “gunk” right now. God has been good to us though and you are right Jesus is our hope. It’s easy to get bogged down with the sufferings and hard times of this life, but if you fix your eyes on Jesus, He can get your through it.
Our pastor put it best as he has just finished a series on Joseph called “Lived to Tell”. Joseph was in a pit and God got him out. He trusted God and that’s what we are doing right now and so far He’s been there every time!
Thanks for your words Milton! Really enjoyed reading your entry today!
I second the joy of the firefly light show, only ours was in Alabama, and included dad’s parents’ 1 acre homestead, a tin dipper to drink cold well water, and a creaky porch swing.
No screen door ever banged with that same sound.
Anyone who’s ever shelled peas and butterbeans on a night like that will always remember how it smelled and sounded.