*Written under the influence of Ferraris Agricola Clàsic Ruchè (2017), Costco Tortilla chips baptized in The Pioneer Woman’s Restaurant Style Salsa, and Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Stones in the Road (1994).
Mea culpa. Yes, I launched this column without a proper introduction. I simply hit the pavement stumbling in an effort to not waste one minute more of my one mild and precocious life (winking at you, Mary Oliver). I’m sorry. My mother raised me better. Please consider what follows as a sufficient penance—a snapshot of words beyond the bio in hopes of mercy from you, my fellow priests.
Well, there's no doubt that life's a mystery
But so too is the human heart
(“John Doe No.24”)
Frederick Buechner describes himself as “a part-time Christian because part of the time seems to be the most I can manage to live out my faith.” Me too, Buech. Me too. Buechner goes on to say that from time to time his life flashes with “Christly truth,” but most of the time we could not distinguish him from “the rest of the herd that jostles and snuffles at the great trough of life.” Me too. Jostle, jostle, snuff, snuff.
I could stop right there as that tells you I am somewhat of a pig—a man who occupies that space between the biblical sheep and goats. Mr. In-Between. However, I did claim this a sufficient penance and that feels a bit short of such glorious aspirations. So I’ll press on.
While my mother raised me with a sense of decorum (I know which fork to use if there’s more than one and I can iron a dress shirt crisp as a newborn dollar bill), my father fed me a steady diet of the King James, westerns, and Johnny Cash. It is between them—such a mother and such a father—that I grew awkwardly toward the light and love. Between Them—that’s the title of Richard Ford’s memoir brimming with unabashed love for his parents. I profess like affection for mine.
Where the people who love you are gathered
Under the wise wishing tree
Our parents. Wowzers. Their presence, absence, present-absence, or absent-presence shape us more than we care to admit most days. If you believe that burden fades as you grow older, I only say just wait. My parents ruined me for the world God so loved. They loved and love it still. Thankfully, I paid attention. And luckily, still do.
William Blake wrote, “And we are put on earth a little space / That we may learn to bear the beams of love.”
I agree with Blake, yet that last phrase has always sounded a bit shiny for me. I mean, Marianne Williamson could have easily used that line the other night on Mr. President. Again, I believe Blake’s on target, but not to the point where I could say, “Me too, Will. Me too.”
If there’s anything my mother and father taught me (and trust me, the lessons are legion), it’s that we are here to learn “to bear the burden of nouns.” That’s my phrase, not theirs, and I should probably trademark it before somebody cribs it and makes out like a bandit. But surely no good Christian would swipe someone else’s words (jostle, jostle, snuff, snuff). But, but, John, you say, that phrase sounds almost as squishy as William’s and Marianne’s. Fair enough. Please allow me to clarify.
The world I was raised in, which is the same world that spun beneath the feet of my parents and their parents before them, is literally littered with nouns. People, places, and things (thanks, School House Rock). And I’m using the word “burden” in the positive sense of something that has weight, form, and heft. So you and I are here to learn how best to carry/care for the people, places, and things that we find ourselves so often between.
Maybe that’s a spouse of twenty-nine years, or two daughters and one son, or even a dear friend who lives too damn far away. Maybe that’s a backyard the size of a matchbook that nevertheless requires watering and mowing during the doggy days of summer. Maybe that’s the blue Niloak pottery your mother has collected for years that you will one day inherit on what will no doubt be the saddest day of your life. Oh, oh, I get it, John, you mean being a good steward of what’s been given to you. Okay, yes, but that hits my ears as tinny. I need more earthy. I’ll stick with bearing the burden of nouns.™
Or as Rilke wrote, “Perhaps we are here in order to say: house / bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window”
Me too, Rainer. Me too.
If you’ll hold this snapshot of my life up to the darkening light, you’ll see me—this little piggy content to stay home, if by home you mean right here in the wide, wide world of nouns between which we live and move and have a sense of being. A part-time Christian learning little by little, day by day, to not just stay alive but be alive—with my head not in the clouds nor stuck in the sand but eyes and ears peeled for what’s right in front of me or possibly just off to the side.
I’ve passed fifty years now, fifty-two to be exact, so while I did make time for a fuller introduction, I don’t have time to be obtuse. Slant, sure. Obtuse, no. I believe that the reason I’m here is the same reason you’re here. You’ll do it differently than me, but that’s the beauty and the terror and the Gloria in excelsis Deo and the sorrow and love flowing mingled down amid the wreckage and the rust of bearing the nouns, by “the giddy grace of God” (thanks, Beuch), we find ourselves between. We’re here to learn. You too, my friend. You too.
This is love, all it ever was and will be
This is love
(“This Is Love”)