Those of you who have been following this blog from the beginning may remember that Patricia and I began it with the idea of exploring Celtic wisdom for aging with vibrancy, beauty, and grace. Very early in our time in Ireland, 2012, with Mary Meighan, as our guide for a pilgrimage in Glendalough Valley and beyond, she suggested:
On the second day of our nine with Mary Meighan in Glendalough, she said, “I’ve read your proposal to the Lilly Endowment for your sabbatical. I wonder, though. . . I like vibrancy and beauty and grace. But, there is sadness in aging too. Those of us in Ireland do death and dying very, very, very well. At 9/11, we stopped everything in the country for a day of mourning in solidarity with you. When my mother died we held a three-day wake at her/our house, and her body was here all the while. We know how to mourn here. I wonder. . . ”
That evening I wrote a blog, “The Fourth Word,” which you can find if you scroll down and look for this image of Mary: . I began that blog with these words:
I don’t much like sadness. It is heavy and wet. It’s feet are plodding and slow. It’s arms are limp and untouched. It’s eyes are downcast and bleary. It has to do with an ache in the marrow of you. It has to do with an awareness you are alone before all things. Maybe you made the wrong turn way back when, and there is no turning back now from this long way. Maybe life betrayed you with an enormity of loss.
I’ve known times of sadness, some of them pretty deep.
I’m sure you have known of it too.
I don’t much like sadness.
Many, if not most of you, have heard me tell the story I read many years ago about a woman whose daughter had died too young. Some months had passed. She was walking with a good friend and said to that friend, “I don’t know if I can make it through this.” The friend immediately thought of all the reasons this mother was sure to make it through the valley of the shadow of death. She had a resilient spirit. She had other children. She was a person who had helped others in times of loss. She was invested in her work, her church, her community. The friend thought all these things and said none of them. What she said instead was, “I don’t know either.” The mother said it was at that moment that she knew she would get through. Her friend had met her where she was . . . not where she was capable of being, but where she was.
In January of 2016, the community of Trinity and beyond have experienced tears. Barbara R died on January 2. Tom K. died on January 8. Bob W died on January 13. Donna G and Martha R were both referred to their homes from Munson with the care of hospice.
There are tears on our limbs.
For these and other reasons I have found myself remembering times of my life: the vibrant, the beautiful, the tear-full, the gracious. It is good for me to remember. Perhaps it is for you too.
Among the labyrinth pathways to remembering is imagining anew the stories of faith that are in the marrow of us. This week I am reading Madeleine L’Engle’s “The Genesis Trilogy.” Within it she imagines the story of Eve and Adam when she is pregnant with Cain. It will take a bit of your time, but is worth it. I have been guided to stories of my own life from Madeleine’s imaginings of early Genesis. Please do make comments on this page about how you are opened (or not) through this freshly imagined story. Others will learn from you, I’m sure.
The First Birth
“Adam,” she said, “I’m afraid. Something strange has happened to me.” She lay under a tree, staring up into his eyes. The roots of the tree were old and round, and seemed to be holding her body in strong, impersonal arms.
Adam dropped to his knees and held out a handful of berries. “Eat. Maybe you’ll feel better then.”
She sighed deeply in her fear and shook her head at the berries. I’m not hungry. Only thirsty. What I want is some coconut milk. Would you . . .”
Upon reading these words, I remembered the eightish month of Kandi’s pregnancy with our oldest child, Jennifer. We lived in the inner city of Toledo, Ohio. It was 1968. We had moved there because I was working as a community organizer for St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in downtown Toledo and it seemed to us both that that is where we should live. We rented an apartment in a four-plex on Franklin Avenue from a woman named Ruby. That night, in the eightish month of her pregnancy, Kandi felt an urgent need for a beer. I know, it wasn’t coconut milk, and truth be known it wasn’t Kandi’s oft craved beverage. But pregnancy gives birth to urges that are not always consistent with diet or practice. And her’s, that night, was for a beer. I went for one. In our sporty yellow Javelin, I headed to a nearby bar. Inside there was an African American bar tender and two young African American men. One of the young men said to me, “What are you doing in here, whitey?” In that moment I tasted the acridness of fear, a taste these young men had known most every day of their lives on their forays within culture’s whiteness. They allowed me to purchase a can of beer. I got home safe with it. Kandi drank. She was calmed. I remember that night reading this Madeleine story.
Still down on his knees Adam looked at her. “You forget,” he said. “There are no coconut trees here. Only there. . . “
“But I want coconut milk. If only I had some I think I would feel better.”
“It’s not my fault you can’t have coconut milk, you know,” Adam said.
Tears welled in her eyes; her fingers tightened on the round coarse arm of the root; she dug her toes into the rough, dry moss. For some reason she did not want Adam to see her cry. After a long time, when she was sure her voice would come steadily, she said, “Something very strange has happened to me. Something I don’t understand. Something we didn’t learn when we had to leave home. Perhaps this is learning about death. I don’t want to learn about death.”
Adam bent over her, slipping his fingers under the antelope skin she was wearing, and felt her round, distended stomach. “It seems even larger,” he said.
“Sometimes when I am holding it I feel something moving inside, as though something were striking me. Is this another way of His showing His anger?”
“No,” Adam said. “I don’t think He would punish us twice for one thing.”
“Please, Adam,” she whispered, “if I could only have some coconut milk.”
“All right,” he said, “I’ll try. I’ll try to slip in somehow. But if I don’t get back you’ll know He has killed me.”
“Don’t get killed, Adam!” she almost shrieked, clutching at his tunic of elk-hide and pulling him toward her.
“You can be so unreasonable . . .” he sighed. “First you want me to go get you coconut milk then you don’t want me to get killed when you know perfectly well what He said about trying to get back. Well, I’ll try to get coconut milk and I’ll try not to get killed, and if that doesn’t satisfy you I don’t know what will.” And he got up from his knees, the little bits of moss and twig sticking to them making a fine tracery on his brown skin. But before he gone more than a few yards he turned and came back. She was lying there with her eyes closed, paying no attention to a dry green leaf of the tree that had floated down and lay tickling against her bare right shoulder. Tears were slowly streaming from under her heavy lids. Again Adam got down on his knees, bent over her, and pressed his lips against hers. Without opening her eyes she reached out and held him to her, her fingers as strong as though they were clutching him in pain.
“I hurt,” she whispered.
Against his tongue he tasted the salt wetness of her tears. Her hair was moist where the tears had rolled unchecked, and he pushed it back from her face, clumsily, trying to dry her cheeks with the palm of his hand, but succeeding only in leaving streaks of dirt. “I’ll hurry,” he said, stood up, and ran off through the trees.
After the trees came a field of yellow waving grasses and after the grasses a river. This he swam, then clambered up a stony hill. Up, up, until the stones gave way to green clumps of bushes, until the bushes gave way to stones again, and the stones in their place to snow. From the top of the hill where ice cold rock had taken the place of the snow he could see their old home. A pang of desire went into his heart that was similar to the pang he had felt when his lips first touched Eve’s that night they first left home; and they had fallen together, rolling over and over on the ground. That had been a feeling that had momentarily made them forget that they must leave their home forever, that had made their life as eternal refugees bearable and even preferable to the old. Now as he saw the green peace of home again he forgot everything else, forgot even Eve, forgot everything but the great tidal wave of homesickness that swept over him and threw him down sobbing on the icy grey coldness of rock, The rock was so cold that it froze his sobs in his throat, kept the tears from coming out of his anguished eyes. He pulled himself up onto his knees, stretched his arms out until every muscle in his body was tightened to its utmost extreme, and cried out in a voice so deep that if he had been able to hear it, it would have made him afraid. “Please!” then with a great struggle he managed to scramble back onto his feet and start running, tumbling, plunging down the mountainside.
But when he came near enough to home to feel in his lungs and against his cheek the difference in the air, to smell and almost taste the difference, he saw in a great flash of lightening, the angel with the flaming sword at the gates. Then there was a crash of thunder and he was flat on the ground, the dirt grinding against his teeth. When the thunder finally stopped reverberating in his ears he realized he was in darkness such as he had never known. This was not the darkness he and Eve had found the night they left home and lay in each other’s arms the whole of that first night. This was not a darkness tempered by stars, or even a a night of clouds with the moon hidden somewhere in the depths. This was not night of fireflies darting or of glow worms’ slow light. This was a darkness such as he had never known. If it had not been for the taste of dirt in his mouth he would not have known it was the familiar earth that he was lying on; he would have thought that this darkness that was so intense somehow had shape and solidarity, had the power to hold him up; or perhaps he was falling through it, plunging downwards headlong like an unlighted comet. Only the grating of the earth against his teeth reassured him that the world was still there, that he was still alive. Even if the sun or moon or stars had been near he felt that their light could not possibly have penetrated this darkness that lay upon him with such heaviness that it seemed as though it was breaking his bones, pressing his ribs together.
Nothing could pierce this darkness but sound, and out of the depths came a voice:
It was a voice of many trumpets, a voice of the singing of the stars, of the clashing of armies, and storms of the skies, a voice that was light dispelling the darkness.
At first as the blackness was slow in lifting he crawled along on his stomach like a snake. Then he began to see through the thick fog, on his hands and knees; and at last he neared the top of the mountain on his homeward journey and the sky lay streaked with blood on the horizon, he stood and began to run.
When he got back Eve was still lying under the tree, dirt streaked on her face where he had tried to dry her tears; but she was no longer on her back in languid weariness. She had rolled onto her side; with her hands she was clutching the tree roots and she was writhing back and forth, moaning.
Adam dropped beside her. He did not tell her of the angel with the flaming sword or the night that had come upon him like a thunder clap. “I couldn’t get the coconut milk.”
But she had forgotten the coconut milk. When she realized he was there she loosed her grasp on the tree roots and transferred it to him. Once he felt her teeth sink into his shoulder but somehow it didn’t hurt and he felt only a strange satisfaction as he saw the red blood running down his arm. Then her grip slowly relaxed and she lay exhausted in his arms. Her antelope skin was wringing with cold sweat and when he laid his hand on her distended stomach she screamed because the pains were starting again.
They had never seen a baby before. It lay between them in a bed shaped by the roots of the tree, and screamed at them angrily. It was very red and wrinkled. Its open mouth from which issued such ferocious yowls held no teeth. The eyelids which were squeezed close shut were seamed with a thousand wrinkles. They knew that it looked older than anything they had ever seen.
“This is what we will look like when we are to learn about death,” Adam whispered.
Eve suddenly snatched up the little starfish and held it to her. She had lost the antelope skin somewhere in the midst of her pains but she was unconscious of this now. She only knew that she must hold this little thing to her and somehow keep it safe.
“But what is it?” Adam whispered.
“I don’t know, but you had better go get it a skin to keep it warm at night.”
Adam stood undecidedly looking down at them. “You don’t hurt anymore?”
She laughed. “I had forgotten all about it!”
“You had forgotten!” he exclaimed in astonishment. Hew could never forget the feeling of her teeth sinking into his shoulder, her antelope skin wringing wet with cold, her face dead white with a circle of transparent green about the mouth, the nostrils pinched, the eyes glazed and sightless, the bestial animal sounds issuing from deep in her throat. All this he would remember when he was an old man with white hair.
“I had forgotten all about it!” she laughed. And then said in a voice that was tremulous with ecstasy, “But Adam, it was wonderful! I would do it again!”
He looked at her, disgust and anger rising in him. “You hurt and you forget it,” he said heavily. “Something that it seems to me must be bad you say is good. How can something good come from hurt and badness?’
She laughed again. “I don’t know, but this is good.”
He scowled down at the little thing in her arms and strode off. Eve hardly noticed his going. She sat there, leaning back against the trunk of the tree, for she was exhausted with an exhaustion she had never known before, quite different from the feeling the night they left home and set out to find a new place fore themselves. This was an exhaustion that was totally pleasant. She lay back against the tree, and the little screaming starfish in her arms suddenly became quiet and relaxed, drooping against her. She rocked it back and forth, her eyes closed, singing, murmuring over and over again, “Little old age, little old Adam, little knowledge of death,” without realizing that the was using words or tune.
By and by she became conscious of a hissing. Opening her eyes slowly she saw the serpent, his hood spread, this little forked tongue quivering, stretching toward her. She snatched her child away, but not before the serpent had licked one small hand with its tongue, leaving a long red mark. Terror sprang in her heart.
“You go away!”
The serpent coiled and writhed at her insinuatingly. “You thought me beautiful once. Let me just see your child. I can tell you all about your child.”
“Go away, snake!” she shrieked. Still holding the baby in one arm, with the other she picked up the largest stone that she could manage, a boulder much greater than she would have attempted to lift with both arms ordinarily, and heaved it at the serpent, who writhed out of its path, and slid away through the underbrush while the stone pounded down the hill. When Eve was certain he was not coming back again, she sank down against the tree, exhausted. The child had begun to cry, raising its voice in a long, thin wail, and she sat clutching it to her until her heart had ceased its pounding and she could sing to it again without a tremor of terror in her voice.
When Adam returned with the skin, a very small skin, the child was sucking at her breast, while she rocked back and forth ever so slightly, ever so gently, singing. He threw the skin down at her feet; then, as she looked up at him, smiling, with an expression he had never seen on her face before, he flung himself down beside her, pressing his face against her thigh because he knew she would not allow him to disturb the little creature at her breast, and burst into a perfect passion of tears because of this day . . . “
Cherished ones of God’s love, many you know these four within you:
Vibrancy born of five senses
Beauty born of creation
Tears born of suffering
Grace born of God.