it rained when it should have snowed
by Seamus Heaney
It rained when it should have snowed.
When we went to gather holly
the ditches were swimming, we were wet
to the knees, our hands were all jags
and water ran up our sleeves.
There should have been berries
but the sprigs we brought into the house
gleamed like smashed bottle-glass
Now here I am, in a room that is decked
with red-berried, waxy-leafed stuff,
and I almost forget what it’s like
to be wet to the skin or longing for snow.
I reach for a book like a doubter
and want it to flare round my hand,
a black-letter bush, a glittering shield-wall
cutting as holly and ice.
* * *
Sometimes life drives you to look for a Word, but since prophets are very rare, non-existent, or possibly existing but not-yet-revealed, you have to rely on books to give you the essential nourishing morsel.
The above is a poem I found nourishing for right now. A nice Advent poem–of sorts– because it mentions holly. The holly here is not festive, because it is prickly and cold– but it is good because it is real– or was.
It is strange to be an American right now–confusing, and emotional. Half of the country thinks the sky is falling and that large shadow has more than once engulfed me, by turns. Nothing seems to be business as usual (certainly not politics as usual), and yet tomorrow is Thanksgiving as usual– my favorite holiday. I made a casserole I’ve made now many times, with mashed potatoes, rutabaga, parsnips, and caramelized onions on top. My mother-in-law, who I liken to a mythical creature in her graceful domestic multi-tasking capabilities, is making about ten other amazing dishes to my one. But she will praise my contribution as if it were a lot more than what it really is.
I might say that I wish I knew history better, so that I could better understand what is happening now in our country. But on the other hand, perhaps it would be useless and only make me more confused and jaded. The other day I happened to hear a Russian proverb quoted (I think I heard it quoted by the radio host Tom Ashbrook, but I could be mistaken): “Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye. Forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes.”
I suspect that the best plan is just simply to stick with listening to On Point with Tom Ashbrook (who handles all callers briskly and adroitly, whether Trump-leaning or otherwise) in the present while reading the occasional history book, though the feeling of national crisis and hurtling toward an abyss– whether true or not– has a way of making the kind of slow learning that books offer seem like a strange activity. But as my dad used to say repeatedly, “In a room full of blind men, a one-eyed man is king.” I never knew if that was a real proverb, or one that he just made up. And it seems as if there is really no straightforward formula at all for who gets to be king.
If I had more lifetimes to spare, I would most certainly go back to school and get an advanced degree in American Studies. Because studying America is endlessly intriguing, always falling into the love/hate dichotomy expressed in e.e. cumming’s poem, “Humanity I Love You,” which ends with, “Humanity i hate you.” This summer I read a book called The Metaphysical Club, by Louis Menand. It made me realize how little I know of American history, starting with the complexity of the Civil War and beliefs surrounding the abolition of slavery. I have always liked books that illuminate the convoluted strangeness of America. I remember doing a book report in seminary on Habits of the Heart, by Robert Bellah, and loving it. I remember being in awe of Alexis de Tocqueville in college.
But while I believe in books I am also a doubter. Because while I am at home pondering the firsthand account of a peculiar American I love like Georgia O’Keeffe (who for some reason painted a series of a white seashell and a black shingle together in the 1920s, and also collected a barrel full of bones from the southwest desert because there were no flowers there to paint) someone else will be planning a marketing campaign for a mainstream evangelical church involving a hashtag of some sort. This hypothetical church was built to look like a convention center, with a coffee shop in the lobby. There are lots of these actual churches across the land, and large numbers of people do not find them weird, even though they bear no resemblance to the first 1500+ years of Christianity and are almost indistinguishable from our current culture, which is, after all, experimental and newfangled.
Like old man Seamus Heaney finding himself in a room with plastic holly, I suddenly feel myself to be in a different, less real America. And like old man Seamus Heaney, the chance memory of something from my childhood that might before have seemed unpleasant– like cold water dripping into one’s sleeve– suddenly now seems good for its realness, its slowness, its not-now-ness.
There is an America that has been always alongside me, in the spoofs that we laughed at on the Simpsons all through the 2000s. But while no one was looking, this America–though I didn’t think it could–climbed onto the lap of the marble high places in the capitol. The truth is that I will always love America.
I realize that my words–and my references to these types of books and people– sound terribly snobby. I never wanted to turn out to be a snob. Truthfully, my dad, who shaped my earliest views of the world, is as red America as it gets. He came from farming families on both sides and his parents did not even finish high school. He carries that view of the world inside of him, and so I know it through him in a visceral way. And there is good and bad that come with that, and the whole mixed bag has been bequeathed to me involuntarily. My dad voted for Trump, and I love my dad. My dad who sometimes wears a baseball cap that sits on his head in a fashion not unlike the one Trump wears; my dad who drinks instant coffee every morning out of the same darkly stained mug, that is, when he isn’t getting his coffee at MAC-Donald’s.
And then there is my grandfather, who is not with us anymore. One of the last conversations I had with my sweet grandfather, when at long last he was slipping a little bit into dementia in 2012, involved him urging me almost angrily (an extremely uncharacteristic way for him to act) to read a book by Glen Beck. I told him soothingly that I might and never did. I told him, “You might be right,” to avoid an argument. I’m glad I did that, because I love my grandfather and miss him all the time.
The truth is that I don’t want to be a snob or counted among The Snobs or the supposed elites, but I’ve cried quite a bit since election night and now I guess I am part of the crowd who lives in a bubble. But my tears are not just over the election. I think that they are also for an era of time lost–maybe represented in part by a vague memory of being a pre-literate four year-old in 1981, riding in the back of a station wagon, a warm sun behind green trees putting me in a sleepy stupor, and the buttery voice Karen Carpenter on the radio. My childhood was nothing special, and was nothing if not fairly dull, but now I’m grieving for the dull days when the news came on TV at slated times, seemed authoritative, and didn’t make parents crazy.
I know this is a blog post without much substance– and this after having not blogged for ages. But I guess the mental and emotional pressure brought on by current events has me reaching once again for poetry and its saving word, and this blog was always the place where I worked out these kinds of internal solutions, through meandering writing and poetry–the most useless thing in the best of worlds, and in Trump’s world, possibly the most pitiable thing.
Since the election, I’ve noticed myself pulling books off the shelf and scanning through them, looking as if to friend, for a word that will bring order and calm to my insides. On one rough day, an Advent sermon by Fr. John Behr in his book, The Cross Stands While the World Turns, breathed air into the crumpled brown bag of my insides, because it reminded me that the most scandalous and unexpected events and people– never the people you would expect or select–were involved in salvation history, not crossed off or written out of the official genealogy. A few days later it was my strange, oversize Georgia O’Keeffe book that includes her commentary alongside her paintings. It was soothing to read her descriptions of how she occupied herself in her very slow-paced childhood, on a blanket, in the sun, playing with her small dolls and fashioning them a four-room doll house out of boards. Some books help directly and some help indirectly, by merely sitting within my view, stacked beside the sofa. G.K. Chesterton, Elizabeth Bishop, Sigrid Undset, and Flannery O’Connor–oddballs across the ages, many of them Made in America–are all on call in case of an emergency. If I keep them close and continue checking back inside their pages, any one of them at any time could flare up in my hand like a burning bush.