Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Matins 10/16

The road east, on route to Portland after Thanksgiving, 2014

When my brother Keith and I were little, our Mom would sometimes take us up north to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula while Dad stayed in Metro-Detroit, running his carpentry business. During these trips, Mom worked in the river behind our cabin wearing waders and a blue bucket hat, building a rock retaining wall to define the space between land and water while Keith and I caught minnows in buckets or damselflies in nets.

At night, we slept in a cabin the size of a two-car garage, which Keith and I loved because our beds were in the attic, a fort-like space we climbed into using a pull-down ladder. During one of these trips, a thwack woke Mom from solid sleep. She heard a thump that shook the entire cabin, rattling the windows so hard she thought they would shatter. She sprang from bed, bounding into the living room. A tangle of branches obscured the windows. Mom couldn’t control her rubbery knees as she began her ascent up to the loft where Keith and I slept. I expected to find you dead, she told me later, pancaked by the trunk of a tree. But when Mom crawled into the attic she found the roof was still above her head. She turned on the light to study the shape of Keith and me in our twin beds, still asleep underneath the quilts she had sewn. She lingered, watching her children and settling her breath before she descended the ladder to call Dad. He drove North the next day and together the two of them chain-sawed the tree that had fallen on our cabin into wood to feed our stove.

 On Sunday night, I told myself the story of my mom and the tree half a dozen times. I told myself the story each time the wind whistled through the Doug Firs making them dance like willow branches, each time the wind slammed the back porch door shaking my bedroom windows. I told myself the story each time I heard a branch crack from its trunk and each time the wind hollowed out, silent between blows. I pictured the Ponderosa behind my window toppling, crushing the historic chalet where I slept, shattering glass, filling my bedroom with wind and rain. I imagined the photo in the Lake Chelan Mirror: my stocking feet sticking out from under a tree-trunk like the Wicked Witch of the East, beneath the headline: Holden Villager Squashed in Mountain Wave Winds. I pictured every bone-crushing scenario, feeling the shape of my body, my warmth and breath, my smallness. I contemplated sleeping on the living room couch but remained in bed heaped under wool blankets, fascinated by the force of wind, in awe of the storm outside my window.

I taught myself not to be ticklish as a kid, and as a grown up, I’ve worked hard to not be afraid: of the cougars that leave prints on the road outside our village or the wolves that have twice chased runners near my family’s cabin in Michigan, of the strangers that approach me in the Detroit neighborhoods where I love to wander, or of camping by myself in the dark desert outside of Moab, listening to the sound of rodents scurrying along the bank of the Colorado River. I’ve learned statistics. Most fears have no foundation in fact. I believe, in many cases, fearing someone or something is a form of violence against him, her, or it. But on Sunday’s fear felt different--edged with wonder and reverence.

When I first saw Glacier Peak’s massive shape looming over the trail to Image Lake, it was more than pretty, it was terrifyingly beautiful: A sublime reminder of my own smallness. When I first walked across Martin Ridge and heard the rocky path skitter beneath me, I felt shaky with awe looking at sky above me and the valley thousands of feet beneath me. The first time I stood in an avalanche chute, the space and the potential for a snow slide made me want to linger at the same time it forced me to flee. I wanted to take photographs, to capture every shadow in the open swath around me, but instead I returned to the trees, taking slow snow-testing steps to safety.

I spend a lot of time pondering vocation, community, and partnership. I’ve written hundreds of pages about the concept of home. But recently, it’s death that keeps coming up. Two weeks ago, Kai and I finished reading Tuck Everlasting, a novel in which the protagonist, Winnie Foster, faces the question of what it means to die when she meets a family who will live forever. Last week Kai and I attended two of Professor Hay’s existential philosophy classes. For the existentialist, to know death is to know life, to fear death is to fear life. In discussion we wondered what it means to live a meaningful life in the shadow of death--and whether one must always approach the question of life’s meaning in the same way. At Holden on Tuesdays, we thank God that “last night was not our last night” during morning matins but lately it’s become a kind of morbid joke among villagers that none of us really know that till tomorrow, so maybe we should be thanking God that “two nights ago was not our last night.”

I don’t know how a Christian should approach death, fear, and the possibility of being squished by a waving Ponderosa. I know we’re taught to fear God with the kind of reverence we feel for mountains or windstorms so maybe we can hope to spend our last moments captivated by curiosity, full of awe for a world which consumes us with open jaws, enveloping us back into the ecosystem to become the same dirt we started from. Or maybe we can wish death will be a peaceful coming home, like listening to a storm from under dark blankets, waiting for the darkness and quiet that follows.

 In her poem, “When Death Comes” Mary Oliver, who several us jokingly refer to as the patron saint of Holden Village, writes,

 “When death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

 I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

 and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

 and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

 When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

 I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.”

I love Oliver’s language, the way she links death with life, making it a platform for meaning-making, wonder, and possibility. So as I face this new morning, alive and un-squished, I pray for amazement, for passion, and for the kind of gratitude my mom felt when she woke find to find the ones she loved still safe and sleeping under their quilts. Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you for this day. Amen.