some of us stood around, waiting for the miracle
by Elizabeth Bishop
At six o’clock we were waiting for coffee,
waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb
that was going to be served from a certain balcony,
–like kings of old, or like a miracle.
It was still dark. One foot of the sun
steadied itself on a long ripple in the river.
The first ferry of the day had just crossed the river.
It was so cold we hoped that the coffee
would be very hot, seeing that the sun
was not going to warm us; and that the crumb
would be a loaf each, buttered, by a miracle.
At seven a man stepped out on the balcony.
He stood for a minute alone on the balcony
looking over our heads toward the river.
A servant handed him the makings of a miracle,
consisting of one lone cup of coffee
and one roll, which he proceeded to crumb,
his head, so to speak, in the clouds–along with the sun.
Was the man crazy? What under the sun
was he trying to do, up there on his balcony!
Each man received one rather hard crumb,
which some flicked scornfully into the river,
and, in a cup, one drop of the coffee.
Some of us stood around, waiting for the miracle.
I can tell you what I saw next; it was not a miracle.
A beautiful villa stood in the sun
and from its doors came the smell of hot coffee.
In front, a baroque white plaster balcony
added by birds, who nest along the river,
–I saw it with one eye close to the crumb—
and galleries and marble chambers. My crumb
my mansion, made for me by a miracle,
through ages, by insects, birds, and the river
working the stone. Every day, in the sun,
at breakfast time I sit on my balcony
with my feet up, and drink gallons of coffee.
We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee.
A window across the river caught the sun
as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony.
* * *
The poem is a sestina, so the last word of each line continues to repeat in a different order in each stanza, making the poem feel as if it is swirling in circles back upon itself. It feels like life to me: waiting for something to happen, preoccupied with the processes of mundane things like coffee and food. And yet also preoccupied with the expectation of something beyond the mundane. I want my bread to be buttered by a miracle. How is it possible to be so caught up in everyday life, and yet, in my heart of hearts, always living the in expectation of some miracle.
Jeff and I went to see Babette’s Feast at the movie theater on Saturday night. Someone left two tickets in the theology lounge on campus for anyone to claim and Jeff decided to take them. That was what determined our plans for a rare night out–the finding of free tickets.
On our way to the theater, I was still uncertain if I had or had not seen Babette’s Feast before, a long time ago. I knew I had read the short story by Isak Dinesen some time back, and that the movie is a favorite in familiar circles, so I’ve heard it referenced a lot. Perhaps I conflated all of this second-hand familiarity into a quasi-movie in my head, something faded and grayscale, in a remote tract of Europe, like the classic version of Heidi. These are the kinds of muddled things that my poor head is capable of. I say muddled because as soon as the movie began, I was certain I had never seen it, and wondered at how I could have invented the notion that I had. In my defense, the Isak Dinesen story is written in a cinematic, straightforward, purely descriptive style that would lend itself to a moving mental image.
But the actual movie is not pale or forgettable. It is vivid and pregnant with meaning. It is perfect and will stay with me securely forever. The story is simple. It begins with despair and limitation and ends with hope and possibility. Between the two bookends of Loewenhielm’s visit from the outside world to a pair of isolated, chaste sisters is sandwiched the time it takes for human beings to live a lifespan not punctuated by anything very remarkable. But the remarkable– the completely unlikely and unbelievable, the divine act, the miracle, awaits these completely unsuspecting people. It happens to them.
I bring it up not really to go into any sort of analysis of Babette’s Feast, but to mention it as a backdrop to the following morning, which was a Sunday morning, enveloped in rain, fog, and, for my part, very little momentum. We drove an hour to the church Jeff is assigned to every other Sunday, which is also across a time zone for us. The time difference is not a big deal, but only means that the start-time feels a little later for us than it is intended to feel. The morning has worn a little longer for us than it has for everyone else. It means, above all, that the breakfast in the tummy of our three year-old has likely been digested upon arrival, making the stretch toward post-liturgical calories at coffee hour a little long for her. This would not be the case if I would remember to bring her a snack for the car, but sometimes that particular detail falls through the rafters in the aforementioned brain that invents memories of movies it has not seen.
On this morning, Esme was very cheerful on the drive, making up songs and singing, pointing to the highway-side cows and sheep from her backseat window. But as soon as we entered the interior of the little St. Elizabeth Church, candlelit and dark as evening under the canopy of an April morning shower, the first thing she did on our way up to the center icon of St. Elizabeth the New Martyr was to spot a bag of cough drops near the choir conductor’s stand and decide that she needed one urgently. When I told her no, she began a high pitched series of whines, culminating in a tantrum. She said she had a cough. She said her daddy told her she could. Neither was a true statement. This was all happening as my husband was heading up to the altar to vest for the service, amidst the quiet scuffle of preparations that happen right before the liturgy begins. I escorted her to a sofa in a back room and we sat down until the tantrum abated. But only the outermost fumes of irritation evaporated off of the two of us. There was no time or privacy to resolve the problem on a deeper level. Tension had pooled and was bound to splatter up again at some point during the liturgy.
She, at least, was distracted and cheered when the other children close to her age began to arrive. I used to deliberately position us at a distance from the other children in church, fearing that she would be a burden on other parents by engaging their children in a rollicking good time. At our parent-teacher conference with Esme’s preschool teacher, we learned that she invents games of imagination at school and assigns role-playing parts to the other kids. She invented one game in which she pretends to be a baby and the other kids have to take care of her. Apparently it is a big hit and they all participate, rallying around her as she crawls around the classroom. Her teacher said that on days when she is not there the kids sometimes are at a loss for what to play. I am not sure how this child came from two parents who have never enjoyed astronomical levels of confidence in big groups.
In any case, this would explain my hesitation to let her engage with other children during church. And of course I also want to make the distinction, for her sake, that church is distinct from all the other ordinary situations of our life. But the separation was incomprehensible to her. My social, exuberant three year-old sees her friends in clusters together and wants to join them. What other impulse could she possibly have upon seeing the children with whom she exclusively relates to through play in every other situation? The restriction was making us both tense and unhappy. I do not want the experience of church to be miserable for her. So I finally gave her the green light to mingle among them, as long as things remained low key. This solved the problem of one kind of tension between us, but introduced a new set of tensions which–no matter how well things go along for a time–inevitably erupt at some point, usually right before communion. When I try to intervene, as I must, things typically do not go smoothly between us. In fact, it seems to me that she never defies so much as she does in this particular situation. And maybe some parents are spurned to be better parents when other adults are looking on, but being around other people has the opposite affect on my parenting. It makes me a worse parent. The fear of how I am being perceived adds to the tension I already feel about her defiance. On top of that, I feel angry at myself for caring one way or another how I’m being perceived. Why can’t I be one of those people who does not care? But I never have been one of those people, and now I am burdening my child with my vanity. It is all like one big recipe for a homemade volcano which, of course, does not have the luxury of erupting in such a setting, accompanied as it is by the the Cherubic Hymn.
So there I was, feeling like an ugly specter among the faithful, hauling my two cherubs up to the chalice for that meal of meals, communion, tied up in knots, void of patience, kindness, longsuffering, and basically the entire catalog of fruits which are cited as evidence of the life of the Holy Spirit inside a human being.
This sends me back to the poem, the movie. I know, I am trying to tie too many things together in this blog post–movies, poems, personal anecdotes. But in my heart, they really are all connected. Life swirls around me in morning coffee, or morning coffee postponed for communion. Then communion, when it arrives, feels like a miracle working on the wrong balcony. Some mornings coffee feels like the real miracle, but then all I get is one drop before I am beckoned away by a dirty diaper and it turns cold. And yet, all this time, maybe a mansion is being forged–not by anything supernatural–but by time, insects, birds and the currents of everyday life. Maybe the stage is being set for something like a feast. “For tonight I have learned, dear sister,” said General Loewenhielm, “that in this world anything is possible.”