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Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Brief Time We Are Here

Back home with snow to shovel

I’ve been meaning to read The Hunger Games but somehow haven’t gotten around to it yet. Thought of taking it on a recent overnight trip...decided to take something else. The occasion for the trip was very sad, and dystopian literature didn’t seem like what I’d want for bedtime reading at the late end of a long, physically and emotional exhausting day. For some unknown reason—most likely its size, the small, slim volume easily tucked into a bag—I took along Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. I know, I know! But I did not open it once during the two days we were away from home.

Branches bearing snow burden
It isn’t easy to be young. YA novels and classic modern poetry both have a point when they put their protagonist in nightmarish scenarios. I was young and anguished once myself (and for longer than I had youth as an excuse) but am glad to say that’s over and given up as a way of life. Nihilism? Not interested. Cynicism? No, thank you. Tragedy and heartache? Life brings quite enough in the natural course of events, but the long view of that same course of events shows a multifaceted reality, with happiness as well as misery, contentment more long-lasting for most of us than boredom or anger.

So the book I opened to read over morning coffee on Friday, far from home, was Wendell Berry’s A Place on Earth, and when we were safely home again in our own bed and David asked me to read to him before we went to sleep, it was the Wendell Berry book I opened again.

The Catletts, the Coulters, and the Feltners, Joe and Nettie Banion, Jayber Crow, and all the others in Berry’s fictional Port William, Kentucky, have known each other for a long, long time, as most of them have known the land around their homes for a lifetime. Death and heartache and tragedy come to Port William, as they come everywhere on earth, but here is how Burley Coulter writes to his nephew, Nathan, away fighting in World War II, telling him that Mat and Margaret Feltner and their daughter-in-law, Virgil’s young, pregnant wife, have had word that Virgil is now listed as Missing in Action. Burley is explaining why the preacher’s visit to the Feltners seemed so irrelevant and inappropriate.
I do say that some people’s knack is for the Here. Anyhow, that’s the talent I’m stuck with. For us it’s important to keep in mind who Tom was. And for Mat and them I judge it’s important to know who is meant when they speak of Virgil. We don’t forget them after somebody who never knew them has said “Dead in the service of his country” and “Rest in peace.” That’s not the way these accounts are kept. We don’t rest in peace. The life of a good man who has died belongs to the people who cared about him, and ought to, and maybe itself is as much comfort as ought to be asked or offered. And surely the talk of a reunion in Heaven is thin comfort to people who need each other here as much as we do.
David and I had driven south to Barry County on Thursday, had gone to a funeral home visitation, stayed overnight with friends in Hastings, had breakfast on Friday with friends on their farm out in the country, and we drove back that same Friday. It was a “quick trip” in one sense. In another sense we covered over forty years. We retraced roads traveled many times in former lifetimes, vaguely familiar now though almost forgotten, too. Our path on Thursday had lain through bright fog, out of which frost-painted trees resolved themselves into stark lines and shapes. We gathered with friends in bright rooms that evening as the darkness pressed around outside. Friday morning the sky was blue, sunshine bright, and our friend Michael dug parsnips from his garden for us, and his wife Barbara gave us jars of honey to bring home.

Last summer’s nut-brown oak leaves hung in glossy bunches along the roads and rivers and lakes of Barry County. Crossing the flat Dutch fields around Grand Rapids, we eventually re-entered the North, pines standing in snow, trembling tawny beech leaves so much smaller and lighter than the oak leaves to the south, apple and cherry orchards taking the place of dairy herds.

Looking north to the winter willows
Wendell Berry’s place on earth, also the place of his fictional characters, is south of the Ohio River. Here are some of Mat Feltner’s thoughts as he goes about his farm chores:
Around Mat, the country throbs with the singing of frogs. Too high in the dusk to be seen, a flock of wild geese passes, a kind of conversation muttering among them. They will go on talking and talking that way all night, flying into new daylight far off. That they do not think of him, that they go on, comforts Mat. He thinks of those wild things feeding along lake edges way to the north with a stockman’s pleasure in the feeding of anything, and with something more.
What name can be given to the “something more”? For Mat Feltner, for Wendell Berry, for the reader in tune both with Port William, with the old Barry County days and now solidly home in Leelanau Township, no further naming is necessary. We hold onto our former lives, onto our old friends, onto those who have passed away from us. And when the wild geese fly over, we notice their passing, too. And then we turn to the next job at hand.

Big, heavy snow here on Friday night. Images in today’s post show what the countryside looked like near my home late Saturday afternoon.

Across the orchard, past the pines, to the wooded hills beyond....


Dawn said...

Thank you for sharing this. And especially the quote, "The life of a good man who has died belongs to the people who cared about him, and ought to, and maybe itself is as much comfort as ought to be asked or offered. And surely the talk of a reunion in Heaven is thin comfort to people who need each other here as much as we do."

That is EXACTLY right. This caught me so unexpectedly this morning as I prepare to head to Washington DC tomorrow for more safety work. It caught me so unaware that I actually cried out loud, and Katie came to kiss the tears away.

I remember being so annoyed with the minister at my parent's funerals telling me I'd meet them again. I didn't want to meet them again someday, I wanted them HERE NOW.

I'm sorry for the loss you suffered this week and glad you and David have each other. It seems so comforting to read to each other before sleep. Hugs.

dmarks said...

Great post.

P. J. Grath said...

Thank you both. Dawn, I will be thinking of you and your work in Washington and hoping you see some good results for your good work.

P. J. Grath said...

By a timely coincidence, an old friend posted this link on Facebook today. I highly recommend it.

Dawn said...

That was really interesting, and in a way, uplifting. Because even though I didn't get to be there for either of my parents' deaths I know they knew they were loved.

Gerry said...

I am sorry for the death of your friend - glad that you could travel back 40 years to gather with people who share deep bonds. A trip home to Port William. Wendell Berry is a great comfort.

P. J. Grath said...

Gerry, I went to sleep reading Wendell Berry, and when I woke in the dark this morning, thinking about this year's garden, the answer came to me: cardboard! All those book boxes I've been breaking down to recycle I can break down to use as mulch. That thought was a good way to start the day.