The Gathering Waters

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These past few days I cannot seem to shake this dis-ease—this disease of anxiety. It’s the feeling of the earth shifting under the feet; of doubt in all that I’ve known to be true. Our neighbors are hurting. We’ve given and donated and offered ourselves as available, but for those who’ve lost so much it can never be enough.

So I do what I always do when I feel helpless, I bury my nose in a book. A couple days ago I picked up Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, a novel I’ve always wanted to read but just never have until now. Summer is for reading, and what’s more, for reading fiction, in my book; so I finally took the plunge. I’ve savored every word of Berry’s economical writing, loving his storytelling voice, which—and this came as no surprise for one well-familiar with his poetry—is warm and rich and lovely.

Last night Jeff had a late meeting and Jeffrey had plans with friends, so after I fed the one remaining boy at home (grilled chicken and vegie kabobs, outside dining on the deck), it was with a thrill that I spread an old blanket out under the shade of the lilac bush. The ground is almost dry now from the heat of the summer sun, the sky dripped blue over me, and I could hear the grasses in the meadows shushing. I carried a stack of books with me like I was going on retreat and read with the songs of Robins as a backdrop.

Turned out I only needed the one book, Jayber Crow. I settled deeper and deeper into the story of orphan boy turned man and it was just the distraction I needed. Imagine my surprise, then, when I turned the page and came upon a chapter titled, “The Gathering Waters.”

In this chapter, Jayber is trying to get back home to Squire’s Landing, Kentucky after taking a roundabout way through Louisville. He is on foot and Berry soon has him walking through one of history’s greatest flood stories, The Great Flood of 1937. In Jayber’s story, he safely crosses a bridge in peril, only to find himself with nowhere to go. A policeman directs him to the capitol building, where he finds warmth, shelter, a hot meal, and a place to sleep for the night among other refugees.

I was thoroughly tired, and I didn’t exactly lie awake, but I didn’t exactly sleep either. As soon as I shut my eyes I could see the river again, only now I seemed to see it up and down its whole length. Where just a little while before people had been breathing and eating and going about their old, every day lives, now I could see the currents come riding in, at first picking up straws and dead leaves and little sticks, and then boards and pieces of firewood and whole logs, and then maybe the henhouse or the barn or the house itself. As if the mountains had melted and were flowing to the sea, the water rose and filled all the airy spaces of rooms and stalls and fields and woods, carrying away everything that would float, casting up the people and scattering them, scattering or drowning their animals and poultry flocks. The whole world, it seemed, was cast adrift, riding the currents, whirled about in eddies, the old life submerged and gone, the new not yet come.”

As I read Jayber’s story, I knew I was reading the story of so many West Virginians. My heart was in my throat as I poured over each line, each detailed description of Jayber’s encounters. The scenes were so real, so fresh to me, and images flashed through my mind of mud-filled school buildings, cars atop trees, houses spilled out into the streets. Everything I’ve seen and heard on the news these past few days came to the forefront of my mind and my heart was stilled. Berry places his hero in the Great Flood of 1937, a flood—Wikipedia tells me—that seeped from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, left one million people homeless, took 385 lives, and caused millions (billions by today’s standards) in property damage. This, during the Great Depression when resources for aid were scarce.

It feels like our little state has dipped back in time. We keep shaking our heads and wondering how such devastation can occur during this day and age. But this is what comes of a living scratched out in the shadow of these ancient mountains, a living born in the rich soil of river valleys. It is, as Berry wrote, “… as if the mountains had melted and were flowing to the sea.”

Cleanup will take a long time here. It will cost much, in more than dollars.

If you want to see more of what is going on here, here’s a little taste from the Weather Channel.

If you’d like to help with the recovery, check out these organizations.

The Red Cross
The United Way of Central West Virginia
Volunteer West Virginia
The Salvation Army

And please keep praying for our neighbors.

West Virginia Morning: Gathering Light

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The summer storms these past few days have left us waterlogged and droopy. This morning the air is heavy with moisture and the Queen Anne’s Lace in the meadow collects the memory of rain. I tiptoe through the sodden grass in flip-flops, try not to disturb the family of House Wrens in the nesting box. The day begins with thousands of drops of light, dripping from leaf and bole. The grass is littered with yellow leaves from the Walnut tree, tiny boats sailing this wet land. I watch a baby rabbit disappear through a door of bending grasses.

It’s been a while since I’ve welcomed morning this way.

I feel my spirit quicken within me; my eyes begin to open fully. So many days lately I’ve been sleepwalking through life. Too many things on the to-do list and there is never enough time. I’ve let that list become too big again, gotten lost in the checking off the items. This is a danger I live with constantly: I lose myself easily.

But this morning I promise to only lose myself in beauty, get lost in time. At first if feels like swimming underwater, awkward, muted. But my body remembers quickly. It just takes practice. Practice. Yesterday I listened to an audio book by Clarissa Pinkola Estés—that esteemed cantadora who woos my heart with story. She talked about that word, practice. She said how sad it is that it has come to mean “to do the same thing over and over” in our world. She shared an old Latin word that is a synonym for “practice.” This word means, “to sing aloud in order to remain close to.”

éYes. That’s my kind of practice.

I begin to hum quietly as I search for light.

Welcome, Morning, I sing. Welcome.

West Virginia Morning: Light Comes Early

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When I take Bonnie out this morning, the blue light of night still lingers. The stars still haven’t shut their eyes and I wave at Orion as we wind around the house. At the edge of the dome, light striations are only just beginning. To me, they look like layers of phyllo, layers of light, and the goodness of the earth’s rotation rouses a slight lift in my spirit.

The light comes earlier each morning and the days grow longer. I’m still trying to find a rhythm since returning to work at the hospital every day at the start of the new year. I miss my slow mornings, reading poetry out loud to God and Bonnie, sipping my coffee and underlining words. Yesterday, the sun warmed the winterstruck and Jeff and went walking for the first time in a while. The sparrows were singing their sweet-sad song and I could smell new grass, the earth melting from the outside in. I felt a holy whisper in my ear, grow, it seemed to purr.

As I drove to work this morning, I noticed a new level of comfort—my heart settling in to a new routine. Time. I’m always telling my patients that some things just take time. But it’s the way we take the time that makes all the difference. I’m still learning how to slow in the midst of all this busy, how to notice the kairos in the chronos. I think it will be a life-long lesson.

And I’m okay with that.

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The winner of Dawn Camp’s new book The Gift of Friendship is Maryleigh from Blue Cotton Memory. Congratulations, Maryleigh! I’ll send you a private message soon.

West Virginia Morning: Doxology

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I awaken before the sun touches the meadow, drift out onto the frozen grass, breathe deep of glory. John Calvin believed theology must begin and end with praise and this morning I cannot disagree. All the world is kissed in white. Except the red of the cardinals at my feeder—crimson flashes on the edge of vision. They chip-chip at me from hiding places as I trespass into their doxology.

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I hop the fence, briefly thinking of Christmas cards and boxed up nativities and how only one side of the lights out front are working. When did life become a race? I want to amble slowly to the manger, savor each step, let my senses delight in scent of straw and flicker of candlelight. Calvin said the world is a theater for God’s glory but lately, I keep forgetting my lines. My eyes are hungry, my soul thin. I don’t know what I am looking for in this ice-meadow, shivering through my robe, standing beneath a roof of lacy gossamer. Delicate crystals of ice rim the memory of autumn and the beauty of the Uncreated One shines before me. I feel the wonder of advent settle into my skin.

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We wait amidst glory upon glory, this beauty dropped into our lives as gift. “The world was founded for this purpose,” said Calvin, “that it should be the sphere of divine glory.”

Overhead, a red-tailed hawk soars on the waking wind and, I, below, lift my small voice and sing the doxology.

West Virginia Morning: What David Oyelowo Taught Me About Faith

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This morning when I take Bonnie out, amber and violet hold hands in the meadow behind our house, coloring these early hours with sun-kissed hues dipping gently in the breeze. The bright waves of goldenrod and ironweed compliment each other perfectly, and I stand for a moment on the rim of our yard to let beauty settle in my soul. My eye follows the color trail along our property line, but something strange happens when I look beyond to where the meadow butts up against our neighbor’s yard. No golden waves dip between greens, no purple clusters kiss the sky. Instead, there is white laced into the grasses, as far as my eye can see.

The meadow behind our house looks like a tickertape parade, but behind our neighbor? There is a wedding banquet.

I have been having trouble ordering the days. Now that my editing job is over, there is a little more room in life and each day I try to make up for all the things I neglected when the deadline was king. At the slow winking of the end of each day, I find myself exhausted and dissatisfied.

Yesterday, I awakened with a terrible cold and am now forced to rest. I am feeling puny and ineffective, all the more aware that no matter what work I choose to do, there will always be something left undone. This transition leaves me questioning everything; I am wondering again about the best use of my time.

I have been trying to live more deliberately from a place of being loved—not let the things I do, the world’s definition of value, perceived success or failure, the actions of others—not allow these things define me. When a woman knows she is loved, it changes the way she lives in the world. I’ve had to grow into this beloved skin—still am on many a day. This question is a remnant from my chaotic childhood, “Am I worthy of being loved?” My husband’s eyes tell me yes, the arms of my children tell me yes, my faith tells me yes; but during times of transition, the soil I was planted in leaves my heart wondering anew.

God uses many things to speak into a life and not too long ago he used a movie star to whisper love in my ear. In an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, actor David Oyelowo was asked how being descended from a royal family has impacted his life now.

Laughing, Oyelowo downplayed this part of his history, saying, “You know, royal families are a dime a dozen in Nigeria. It’s more like being the king of Sherman Oaks, really.”

But then he went on to share a very profound way his family lineage has shaped his outlook.

… the effect that knowing that I was from a royal family had on me—I mean, it had no real monetary or positional benefits … as is the case with a lot of African royal families. There’s actually no real financial remuneration. It’s more born out of a tradition. But what it gave me, that is undeniably something I hugely value, is a sense of self that has enabled me as I’ve gone into my life in the West to carry myself in a way that flies in the face of the world in which I live in. You know, there are a lot of challenges I undeniably have faced as a black person, both in the U.K. and in the U.S. that contrived to make me feel lesser than what I am. And I can absolutely see that in the African-American experience in this country. If you feel like the beginning of your history is rooted in slavery, that really, I think, messes with your sense of self, your self-esteem and your self-worth. But to know that you came from a lineage of kings, to know that you came from a place whereby every opportunity afforded within that society is yours for the taking, it makes you get out of your bed a very different way than if you feel like today is yet another fight. And so that is something I carry with me that I know has been of huge benefit as a result of, you know, my family and where I’m from.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about his words since I heard them. Our country has had a rude awakening in the past few years when it comes to race relations. Everything I thought I knew about such things turns to dust in my mouth when I try to speak of them. But Mr. Oyelowo’s words teach me about more than the troubles of our culture. They teach me about myself.

What if I lived my life as one descended from royalty? What if I treated every person I encounter in this same way? Yes, I am worthy. I am a daughter of the king.

This morning, I look out over the meadow at an endless sea of white. Its name is Tall Thoroughwort, my wildflower book tells me. But I name it Promise. It’s a royal wedding feast.