Monday, January 16, 2012

A Window in the Skies

The Book of Common Prayer contains all different kinds of prayers. There are prayers for the world, prayers for the Church, and prayers for the national life, including prayers for the Supreme Court. There’s a prayer for the celebration and the blessing of a marriage that goes like this: “Give them wisdom and devotion in the ordering of their common life, that each may be to the other a strength in need, a counselor in perplexity, a comfort in sorrow, and a companion in joy.” That’s just beautiful.

Another one of my favorite prayers is found in the Prayers and Thanksgivings section: “O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in thy mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last. Amen. “

Here’s another prayer, uncanonized and unarticulated, but which tends to work if I can utter the words: “Help me to see.”

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In Charles Frazier’s newest novel, Nightwoods, set in North Carolina in the fifties, we meet Luce, a twenty-something single woman who, having experienced perhaps the worst of what her small North Carolina hill town has to offer, takes a job as a caretaker of a now unused but formerly grand summer lodge. She sleeps in the great lobby in front of the fire place on a cot, while the three floors of guest rooms and servants quarters go unused. She dresses from the trunks that have spent decades in storage, and spends most of her time in a solitary wandering of the hills. Then the county welfare worker drops off her nephew and niece, whose mother, her sister, has been killed in their presence. Consequently, they like to start fires. Luce is their only living relative with the capacity to care for them. So they move into the lodge with Luce. A few months later, Stubblefield, the nephew, having inherited the lodge from his uncle, intrudes upon their life in the hills.

He recognizes Luce as the beautiful teenage girl who sucked on a Popsicle the entire time she paraded up and down the side of the town swimming pool during an impromptu beauty pageant almost a decade ago. He noticed her then, and thought about her after. She is changed but still intriguing. He asks her about her life, why the lodge, and whether she is lonely:

She pointed out that weather was plenty interesting to watch as it passed over you, and it had entertained people for many thousands of years. And not just immediate weather but also the larger movements of the seasons. You had to learn how to feel the long flow and not get hung up on the day-to-day. Big swellings and recedings, upturned and downturned sweeps linked in slow rhythms built from millions of tiny parts—animal, vegetable, mineral—not just temperature and length of daylight. For example, the way a rhododendron changed throughout the year, month by month. She claimed she observed and learned nearly a hundred such parts of the local world. She said, Imagine holding every bit of it in your head at one time, this whole place, down to what salamanders are doing every month of the four seasons. She put the bunched tips of her fingers to each temple and said, Boom. Then spread her fingers and lifted her hands in a gesture of explosion.

Charles Frazier, Nightwoods, Chapter 6.

I lay on my bed reading that passage on a Sunday afternoon about two weeks ago. The idea trickled down on me that God is able to forgive with such apparent ease because he holds the entire picture of us in his head all at the same time. The beginning and the end of me are present tense for him. I jotted down on a piece of paper, “Forgiveness is largely about vision. The capacity to forgive is linked to the ability to see. God forgives because he can see.” I thought how useful it would be to be able to see like that.

Sometimes, I run into people I cannot see. By that I mean, that I’m not been able to understand them or their actions. They remain foreign creatures to me. This doesn’t normally happen. As Kevin can tell you, I can empathize with just about every situation—which empathy alarms him at times. I read about women sentenced to six years for shaking their babies or forcing them to drink wheat storage buckets full of water, and I can understand how you get there. I think Brady Udall’s resolution of The Lonely Polygamist is just about the truest description of the braid of love and duty ever. Now, I don’t want to be loved by that lonely polygamist; he’s too lumpy. But I could feel him and his heart. And, there are days when a polygamous set-up makes great practical sense. I could never home-school my children in a million years, unless we were wealthy enough to make school one long field trip coinciding with the locations of medieval castles, WW2 battlefields, and Bushmen creation narratives. But I can see how you would want to do that, for a number of reasons—none of which work for me.

Yet still, sometimes, there are people I just don’t get. When that happens, and I have to live with them or work with them, there’s normally an expletive that bursts in a frustrated bubble in my brain, accompanied by a mental motion that looks sort of like the garbage can sucking in an email message just discarded on an iPhone. Gone. Goodbye. From then on, I look slightly sideways at them, like they’re a specimen.

If I’m in a really good frame of mind, or the situation requires that I can’t remain so detached, sometimes other words sidle into the bubble, “Help me to see them.” By that I mean, “Let me see what you see when you look at this person . . . because right now, I can’t see anything redeeming about them.” I understand now, after reading the passage from Nightwoods, why these words would be an inclination. Because in them is the way through. It’s why Moses is taken up into the mountain and allowed to see the children of Israel from a vantage point he has never had before. It’s why Jehovah tells Abraham to “lift up thine eyes” so that he can see the promises.

If I lift up my eyes, just as Abraham did, my eyes are opened. The gift to me is the person’s days, weeks, and entire seasons in my head at the same time. I see not only the color of this particular tea rose/person (which to my uninitiated eyes is a really vile bright pink) but also its life cycle, its attack by aphids the summer before I bought the house, the premature dying off this season but the vigorous growth next spring. If I am allowed to see as He sees, with a creator’s invested eyes, I can see the whole person, not only as they are, but as they have been, as they can be and as they will be. If I can resist coloring the temperature of that particular day and the action of that particular moment with a significance it doesn't have; if I can manage to “hold every bit of [the person]” in my head “at one time,” I think I might just explode with the vision of them. Patience may actually become genuine; forgiveness unfeigned and readily at hand; the individual days enjoyable.

Not only for them but also for me.

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