I also have a garden that is a tangle, not of sweet peas, but of sunflowers and black eyed Susan’s and Echinacea spilling over a bank onto the patio. As I sat out there last evening sipping my wine and watching the sky, I was jubilant. Marriage equality at last, after legal battles spanning forty some years. Love is love is love. But not two weeks ago, in a church in Charleston, a young man’s act of rage took the lives of nine people. Another church in Richmond, VA, and some man banging the walls with a metal pipe while he shouted racisms at the congregation. And Thursday morning, a black church burned down in Charlotte, NC.
I remembered a line from Voltaire about garden-minding and some days I want that to be enough. How, as you say so well, can I use my voice in a way that matters without adding to the chaos of the world? I want to believe that beauty and a voice on a page and prayers even are enough. I want the power of quiet voices, as you said on a thread on Facebook.
Some of my earliest memories are of voices. Sunday mornings. A church house, but I’m not sure where in eastern Kentucky I was. I was little enough to have the world be a floor and feet and things they gave me to keep me busy. Paper fans with Jesus and hymn books to stack into forts and towers. I also remember windows open to summer air. A bulletin board with how many attended, so I was old enough for numbers. And the sound of voices rising. It was the kind of church where people went up front and knelt and prayed all at once, a song-prayer, a collision of whispers. Quiet voices. Heal her, Lord. Listen. Praise. And later, in my memory, people waved arms toward heaven or ran around the room or fell out, their bodies shaking. It was a church to scare a child into belief or its absence.
Over the years, I’ve gone to a dozen kinds of churches trying, maybe, to understand what those prayer-voices were really saying. Quaker meetings. Mass. A temple blessing with yak butter and prayer flags. I’ve lit candles for the Sacred Mother in cities all over. Gone to a nunnery on the outskirts of a village in Greece where I lit candles to the Virgin of the Three Martyrs. Climbed to the grand, echoing Sacre Coeur at Montmartre. Gone to a roadside church of the Pentecost as I drove miles of backroads toward Harlan County, when I went back to visit the grade school I went to when I was a kid. All of it a faith from childhood left behind long ago.
My faith has been replaced by a variety of other voices. The word soul, someone said to me a couple years back, is a cliché. Better to think of faith as a secular experience, someone else said. Or this: spiritual writing won’t sell. And this: all that talk about belief, it sounds so flakey. The charismatic churches of my early childhood represent to many a mishmash of uneducated with a dash of pagan thrown in there for good measure. I’m surprised, a student said to me on the phone the other day, that you’ve kept your accent from where you come from. Why, I asked. Oh, people don’t respond to me very well when I say I come from the mountains. I’ve kept my voice, my heart, my faith, but I’ve kept it all in my pocket, a breviary of which I am dubious and curiously ashamed.
What would it look like if I took my faith out of its hiding place and held it in the palm of my hand? An origami bird. A polished red stone in the shape of a heart. The book I’m working on, dozens of little fragments about fire. The first fire I remember. A little girl they told about when I was little, how she fell face forward into the fireplace and her daddy grabbed hold and pulled her out, neither one of them a bit hurt by the flames. They told how it was a miracle.
Thomas Merton said, “we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time.” i I long for this to be true, but all I can think about this last week are the faces of those nine souls, shot by a twenty-two year old white supremacist boy who could very well have lived down the road from the church house I went to when I was little. I want to sign up for programs to teach me how to be a social worker. I want to go to divinity school and take up preaching. I want to dig holes and plant trees. I want to walk dogs in the park and speak to no one at all.
As you said so well in your letter, “The not knowing where it all will lead, the faith required to make art, the vastness of possibility, and all that we have no control over…the part that exists without flash or banter, the quiet part, the part we most need.”
I come back to it, again and again. The open book. The blank page. I look for it, the thing beneath the thing. The moment underneath the chaos and despair. The ghost in the bones. A poem read aloud like a prayer:
Let Evening Come (Jane Kenyon)
Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.