Joysaphine_birches

4

O God bow down Thine ear and hear—O hear—
For Thou alone may save. My Castle, Crag,
Defense, O draw me out the net—this fear
That stalks my soul and doth my body drag
Down heavy, pulled like tides by moon to drown
In darkness of iniquity&mbdash;consumed.
Reproached, avoided, burned by friends’ cold frowns
And broken like a vessel ocean-doomed
I toss upon grey waves. No shore is near—
No one but Thou. Have mercy! Take my part—
O save my salt-soaked soul—’tis sere and seared
And Thou alone may slake my charrèd heart,
May tabernacle me on foreign sands
Wandering, afraid, alone—into Thy hands.

—E.B., 1818

 
 
Maggie’s days fell into a rhythm—mornings she spent with Gram, sorting through Helen’s belongings; after lunch Gram rested and Maggie went outdoors to walk through the fields or sit and stare at the river or read E.B.’s sonnets. She kept them with her always—E.B., whoever she was, seemed a kindred soul. She had known shame and suffering—and though Maggie did not quite feel she could consider herself to be suffering, she knew enough of shame and regret to find her current situation painful, at best.

Often on her jaunts she ran into James and walked with him, quoting Stevenson at him and learning the various landmarks they passed and how to tell a Leicester sheep from a Ryeland.

In early October the sun-warmed days turned misty and damp, but most afternoons Maggie simply donned her boots and jacket and tramped through the rain and mist, just to be out-of-doors and not breathing the dust that shrouded her great-grandmother’s house. One afternoon, mist shrouded the hills thicker than the dust indoors, but Maggie had to get out of the house. She and Gram had quarreled, and she needed air and space and rain on her face. She walked away from the river, toward town, where she thought she would be less likely to run into James; she needed solitude.

Over lunch Gram had asked, not for the first time, what Maggie’s plan was, and Maggie, once again, said she didn’t know. “You’re going to run out of time if you wait too long,” Gram had said, and Maggie had snapped, “I know that! Do you think I don’t know that? Do you think I’m not aware every single day that my life has changed forever and that I need to decide what I’m going to do about it?”

The silence after this outburst had been excruciating. Maggie couldn’t even finish her sandwich. She took it to the kitchen and left it there while she put on her jacket and boots and stormed out into the mist.

Gram was right, of course. She had to think about the future, figure out what she was going to do, but thinking of the future made her think of the past, and she desperately longed to forget the past, forget her foolishness in believing Brian had loved her. Would he have married her at all? Or had she been fooling herself in that, too?

She reached the edge of town and skirted it, keeping to the fields. Through the mist she saw a faint blur of yellow at the top of the next rise. A stand of birches, perhaps. She tromped toward it and thought of their final conversation, how she’d dreaded telling him over the phone—she’d wanted to see his face, wanted him to see hers—but what else could she do when he was in Georgia and she in Spokane? She remembered how she’d told him she was pregnant, how there was a long and awful silence, how she’d said, “Brian?” and he’d said quietly, “This wasn’t in my plans, Mag. Isn’t there—you know—can’t you do something about it?” Those were almost his last words to her; he never called again, was always “out” whenever she called him, and never returned her calls. Part of her was almost glad; it made it easier to vilify him, to feel justified in hating him. After her tenth—or maybe it was the twelfth—phone call, she’d given up. He went off to Yale Law in the fall; she came here. She had no reason to think she would ever see him again.

And to think she had loved him! How could she have been so blind, so stupid? She vacillated between hating him and hating herself. She called him the vilest names she could think of. Many times. And called herself quite a few at the same time. But all the name-calling in the world wouldn’t change things.

The mist turned to rain. She felt it fall on her face as she reached the top of the hill and passed through the birches, their yellow leaves the only color in sight, dropping silently onto the sodden ground. The fields were a grey and misty blur. She wasn’t even sure where she was. She didn’t care and, leaving the birches behind, kept walking.

She’d read enough books to know that if she didn’t let go of her anger and hatred, she’d end up bitter and poisoned like Miss Havisham—surrounded only by her own moldy memories—all of them galling—and poisoning the souls of everyone around her, not least this child that now grew in her womb.

No, she would not choose that path. But how? How not to choose it? How to live without anger, without bitterness? How to choose joy and life and love in the face of rejection and betrayal? How did one do that?

She reached a stone wall and found she didn’t have the strength to climb it, so she stood beside it, staring out across the rainy grey fields, lost to all but her swirling thoughts.

“Maggie!”

She started at the sound of James’s voice, right beside her. Rain sheeted down the hood of his jacket.

“You’re soaked through!” he said.

“Am I?” She looked down. Sure enough—her jacket was soaked, her jeans were soaked, even her boots were soaked. She hadn’t noticed. She felt inside her pocket. E.B.’s sonnets were still there, but whether it was the pages or her hand that was wet, she could not tell.

James looked concerned. “Are you unwell?”

She shook her head. “No. No, I’m fine. Really. Just—distracted—is all.”

James grinned. “Must be some distraction to make you oblivious to rain like this.”

“Yes. Yes, it is.” She stared through the grey air and suddenly felt cold.

“Come on,” James said kindly, and offered her his arm. “I’ll walk you home.”

She felt fuzzy-headed and a bit dizzy. Everywhere she looked was grey. It seemed to take a long time to get back to the cottage. When they finally reached the gate, darkness was falling, and Maggie could hardly move her legs. In the dusky grey light, she noticed a bedraggled plum arcing its baring branches over the path to the door. Its leaves lay scattered and dingy on the pebbles of the path. As James lifted the latch and opened the gate, Maggie remembered E.B.’s fourth sonnet—“glad hand to latch”—and realized with a momentary lift of her heart that E.B. had come here in her distress—to Helen’s house. She stumbled and gripped James’s arm to right herself. E.B.’s “kind unknown kin” had lived here! It was here that she had found shelter and welcome and compassion.

Firelight shone in the leaded panes of the windows beside the door. James escorted her up the walk—propelled her, really—his hand on her elbow.

“Lily?” he called to Gram as he opened the front door.

“I’m fine, James, really,” Maggie said, even as she felt herself sag dizzily against him.

Gram came into the room. “At last!” she exclaimed. “I’ve been worried sick!”

“She needs tea,” James said. “And dry clothes. And something to eat.”

Gram grabbed a blanket off the nearest chair and wrapped Maggie in it. “Thank you, James,” she said as she led Maggie to a chair by the fire and sat her down. The door clicked softly closed behind them as James slipped back out into the falling night. Maggie began to shake. She felt so cold. A sudden sob erupted from somewhere deep inside, and she realized she had not cried, not once, since the day she last talked to Brian. The tears came hard, and she let them, sobbing into her hands as Gram held her and stroked her wet hair and whispered, “Sh. Sh. It’ll be all right. All shall be well, Maggie. Sh. All shall be well, dear. You’ll see. All shall be well.”

 
 
Photo by Joysaphine, Creative Commons via Flickr.

Heart to Behold

monstrance

I almost didn’t go in. Susan, on the other hand, immediately stepped across the threshold, knelt on one knee, crossed herself, and disappeared down the center aisle, out of my sight.

The Chapel of Perpetual Adoration was on her list of Places To Go before I returned home the next day. I’m not Catholic. Neither is she, anymore. But “Perpetual adoration, Kimberlee!” she exclaimed.

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, two people sit or kneel in that chapel to pray before the Blessed Sacrament for the needs of the world. A worthy—even saintly—endeavor. Not being Catholic, I don’t hold the consecrated bread and wine in quite so much reverence. Still, I’m mystical enough to agree with Flannery O’Connor who once sniffed, “If it’s just a symbol, the hell with it.” The bread and wine, somehow, are the Real Presence of Christ: the bread, His body; the wine, His blood. I believe this. So why was I still outside the door?

Fear of the unknown? Fear of looking the bumbling interloper that I was? Fuzzy Eucharistic theology? I didn’t know. I wasn’t analyzing my emotions. I was just feeling them—and berating myself for a silly coward, which did the trick. I would not hover cravenly on the doorstep. I went in.

But I kept my eyes on the floor. Kneel. Cross myself. Stand. Walk. Make no eye contact. Make no sound. I slipped into the last pew—not that it mattered much. There were only five. The chapel would hold maybe 30 people. Once I was seated then, and only then, did I look up.

And my jaw dropped. There before me in all its hideous glory was Kitsch-with-a-capital-K. Not the evangelical kitsch that I’ve long become inured to: you know, stuffed bears holding hearts that say “Jesus Loves You,” posters of nature scenes with an Uplifting Bible Verse written across them in cursive script, Thomas Kinkade paintings. No, this outclassed Thomas Kinkade by a host of Precious Moments angels.

The monstrance (which holds the Blessed Sacrament) was a spiky gold monstrosity nestled in a white satin box, open side facing out, so chapel-sitters could see it in all its spiny gilded glory.

Beside the satin-boxed monstrance were garishly painted plaster angels with gold wings and an equally garish Holy Family. Baskets of flowers were strewn willy-nilly on the floor and on small platforms of varying heights. Beneath the clunky arrangements of carnations and baby’s breath, the platforms were draped in acres of patterned pink, green, and blue fabric, as if an Easter egg factory had exploded and all the bits of colored plastic had landed here. The crucifix was wrapped in gaudy gold ribbon tied with a gaudier gold bow.

As I sat gobsmacked staring at this spectacle, I couldn’t help contrasting it with the Trappist monastery Susan and I had visited the day before: unadorned stone walls, wooden benches, a simple wood altar with only a candle and an icon of Mary and Jesus beside it, and above it the lamp of the Presence suspended on a thin chain from the high wood ceiling. That was all: simple, spare, even austere—and beautiful. So beautiful that I wept. A thin place, the Celts would have called it, the Holy so near I felt I could reach out and touch it. Or rather, that it was reaching out and touching me. Tears of longing had coursed down my cheeks.

Now, however, in the Chapel of Perpetual Bad Taste, I was laughing. Silently, of course, my shoulders shaking with noiseless mirth. Good thing I was in the last row. No one could see. I imagined God chuckling, too—after all, He’s a tasteful guy—and shaking His head, our eyes meeting in mutual horror and amusement. How, I wondered, could anyone pray here? Surrounded by so much vulgarity?

And then, just as I was feeling perfectly superior to the poor clueless rubes who decorated this joint, quite suddenly—

Clarity. Conviction.

I felt like a character in a Flannery O’Connor story, suddenly slapped in the face with the ugly reality of myself: arrogant, proud, condescending…and spiritually impoverished.

In all my urban sophistication, I realized, I couldn’t hold a candle to the blue-haired old lady and the stoop-shouldered gentleman who knelt before the Blessed Sacrament and interceded on behalf of God’s children.

My refined sensibilities were too coarse to perceive the truth, until that moment of blinding sight: God did not see what I saw, nor was He laughing with me at these people. God’s Heart—the Heart of Love and Beauty that is the pulse of the universe—delights in this place. For here, His faithful people gather hour after hour, day after day, year in and year out, to praise Him, petition Him, pour out their hearts to Him in love and confidence and gratitude.

These past weeks, while the rest of us have been feeling overwhelmed by the world gone mad, that blue-haired old woman and the stoop-shouldered gentleman and all the other praying people in that place have gathered to worship and adore and trust and pray, to lift up the needs of the broken and needy and hurting every hour of every day. Their prayers—faithful, humble, invisible to all but God—transform a tacky, gaudy, kitschy little chapel into a paradise of praise, a thin place, a place of beauty and love so deep only Beauty and Love can behold it.

Take my eyes, Lord, 
take and blind me

Till I see as Thou dost see.

Love and Beauty
 are Thy heartbeat—

Place Thy clear-eyed heart in me.

 
 
Photo by Denis-Carl Robidoux, Creative Commons via Flickr.

Joysaphine_birches
 

3

“They wandered in the wilderness of Sin.”
Sin is a place to worship golden calves—
My calf, a man; my wilderness, within.
Town’s fetid fogs—their muck and moil—mere halves
The sand and ash and soot that smirch my soul’s
Depths—depths I gave to him—that he received
And filled and then reviled and ripped great holes
To seep such swirling mad cloud-thoughts. Conceived
I ne’er till now such fearsome demon-dust
Could fog my heart, my head, leave me alone
Though compassed round by merry friends—they jest
And laugh—I curve my lips but inward moan.
It’s said life grows in deserts, seed and tree—
A fearful truth—for woe—it grows in me.

—E.B., 1818

 

Two days after finding the sonnets, Maggie sat with her back against the sun-warmed stones of one of the ubiquitous stone walls that crisscrossed the hills and valleys of Herefordshire. The checkerboard of rock walls, green pastures dotted with sheep or cattle, and golden fields unfolded before her almost to the river. The Land of Counterpane, she called it, remembering her mother snuggling her down under her own quilt and reciting the Stevenson poem to her. She said it softly to herself now.

“When I was sick and lay abed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day.”

She wondered who E.B. was.

“And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out
And planted cities all about.”

“Gram,” she’d said over her tomato sandwich at lunch, “some of those books I found the other day were labeled E.B.” The lie slipped from her tongue so easily it almost frightened her. “Do you know who that might be?”

“No idea, dear,” Gram had said. “But there’s a family Bible around here somewhere. When we unearth it, we can look at the family tree and see if there’s an E.B. in our past.”

Maggie sat up straighter, leaning away from the stones at her back. She could almost see Stevenson’s poem play out before her and raised her voice a little, the way her mother used to, rising to a crescendo in the last stanza.

“And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills.”

A swift motion caught the edge of her vision. She turned her head to see James leap the wall and drop onto the ground beside her.

She jumped a little. “You startled me!”

He said,

“I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill
And sees before him dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.”

“Showing off?” she asked, and hated the waspish sound of her voice.

He gave her a sheepish grin. “A little. Stevenson was Scottish, you know.”

Maggie did know. But she did not know what to say. She turned her face away from him, toward the valley.

He swept his arm before him. “I sometimes think of that poem, too, when I see these fields. My dad used to read Stevenson to me when I was a lad. Burns, too. ”

Maggie still said nothing. She stared out at the valley and felt her cheeks burn with shame over her behavior to him the other day. She could have been more gracious. And he could have kept his question to himself and his mouth shut.

James cleared his throat. “I’m sorry I snuck up on you. I was afraid if you saw me coming you’d walk away.”

She almost looked at him then.

“I looked in the Jordans’ Bible the other night, after we met,” he continued, “to find out about Mary Magdalene. Turns out she was one of Jesus’ most faithful followers—at the foot of the cross and at his empty tomb.”

Maggie nodded, but kept her eyes steadily on the valley. “My father calls her the Apostle to the Apostles.”

“Yes, I read that, too, that she was the first to tell them about the resurrection.” He paused for a moment. “It’s a noble name.”

A smile quirked her lips at his old-fashioned words. “Is that your way of apologizing for being a total prat?”

James laughed. “Yes, Mary Magdalene Lowell, that is my way of apologizing for being a total prat.”

“Thanks.” She looked at him, and quickly back out at the valley. “You weren’t a total prat, you know. I could have let it go.” She looked at him again. “That’s my way of apologizing for being an ungracious little brat.”

James nodded. “So all’s well? We can be friendly neighbors now?”

Maggie smiled. “It’d be nice to have someone other than Gram to talk to. She’s great—the best grandmother in the world—but I’m starting to miss people my own age.”

James shook his head. “I don’t think I’m your age.”

She gave him an appraising glance, taking in his long lean frame, his deeply tanned face, the lines around his mouth that suggested he laughed easily and often, and the lines around his eyes that spoke plainly of suffering. Her smile faded and she looked abruptly away. “I don’t think so, either,” she said, forcing a smile back to her lips and trying to keep her voice light. “I’m 22.”

“Thirty.”

Maggie shrugged. “It’s closer than 75.”

James laughed, such a contagious shout of joy that she found herself laughing with him. She realized it had been a long time since she’d laughed.

 

Photo by Joysaphine, Creative Commons via Flickr.

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