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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Celebration Sunday (First Snow)

It's the beginning of winter at the same time that it is, I feel strongly, the beginning of a new American era. At our home this morning, we launched the season and the age quietly, in our domestic way, with blueberry pancakes, maple syrup, bacon and coffee while listening to "Prairie Home Companion." (I think Garrison Keillor was too hard on his [our] generation, but that's another story. The music was wonderful.) After getting a pot roast started in the big cast-iron pot, we braved the weather to go outdoors with Sarah. Bitter-cold wind drove snow across the open field, but Sarah didn't care, and David said gamely, "It's exhilirating. That's how I'm going to look at it." Good attitude! It was good, too. Still, I'm happy to be indoors again, and my thoughts keep straying to apple pie....

But I want to fix this whole past week in my memory--the whole range of feelings, colors of the season, books I've been reading, conversations, sunshine, rain, snow--all of it. There have been so many tragic national and world events etched in memory over the years, but won't all of us remember Tuesday night, too? Where were you when you heard the news? Once again, the world will never be the same, but this change has made it brighter.

"Nothing sharpens a traveler for the road better than the grindstone of home, and never have I arrived home but with great relief nor have I set out except with eager anticipation." -William Least Heat Moon, Roads to Quoz

Sometimes, when all is well with the traveler's world, a completely unfamiliar place can feel like home; when confidence is high, it is possible to feel that the whole world, the earth itself, is home; and in those times, the small corner one inhabits with a "permanent" address can be all the dearer, too.

Here's a somewhat long passage from Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, which I include because I have been re-reading the novel this week and also because parts of it have been more relevant to me in the re-reading than they were the first time around. At least, I think they struck me more forcibly, but perhaps it is only that in the heightened feelings of the past week, all words of wisdom seem to have more force than usual.

"When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impulse will be to respond in kind. But if you think, as it were, this is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate. You are free to act by your own lights. You are freed at the same time of the impulse to hate or resent that person."

There are those who would take these words literally. I do not, and yet it still has meaning for me. What good can I accomplish in this situation, and how can I respond openly, with kindness? In Robinson's novel, the old man writing the letter to his young son writes immediately after the paragraph above, "I am reminded of this precious instruction by my own great failure to live up to it recently." That is the good, I guess, that we can find even in our failures--a reminder of what we want to be.

Then, from "America the Beautiful," lyrics by Katharine Lee Bates, here are my favorite verses:

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!


O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!


There is nothing about this song that I don't prefer to our present national anthem and any other patriotic song I've ever heard mentioned as a possible new national anthem. The vision of the geography of the whole country is there in Bates's words, praise for its high ideals and gratitude for its history, along with an awareness of the distance still to travel and a fervent petition for guidance. And what could be more singable and more stirring than Samuel Ward's melody? There is pride in "America the Beautiful" but no hubris.

It has been a beautiful autumn, the transition into November unusually mild and colorful, the days like a series of gifts. Even the cherry farmers say that the color in the orchards this year has been extraordinary. It hasn't been only a few isolated trees or orchards, either, but block after block, acre after acre of rich orange gold. Now the wind is stripping off the leaves, and half the trees are already bare. Corn harvest is underway, too, so soon those fields will be nothing but stubble. But it is all good, and the wheel of the seasons turns without slowing. This is a very good time. I feel so privileged to be alive, here and now.


Anonymous said...

Yes, America the Beautiful is my favorite anthem too. It's about love of the land itself, about respect for each other, about the relationship of freedom to law, and about the responsibility to tend all of that.

Last night at twilight I drove along M-88 toward Central Lake. Even in the gray light the orchards glowed deep red gold. How could it ever be possible NOT to love this land?

P. J. Grath said...

My sentiments exactly.