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Oregon Pilgrim

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Little Biographies

Solace

I’ve not experienced grief like this before. I usually saw my grandmother once or twice a year — often for a time period of around a week.

Yet, the string of weeks here and there has had a profound impact on my life and, as I drove down the familiar road, the emptiness of the world without her in it pressed in like the ocean on a deep-sea diver. It is heavy.  Every inch of her home has her mark upon it. The stucco fireplace.  The master bedroom with its 3/4 wall dividing it from the sitting room. The buffet still waiting for the copper. The copper kettles hanging in the kitchen.

And the walls. The self-portrait of the Old Man. The nude. And along with the favorites, her own paintings hang everywhere.

She said this painting represented her — a horse too wild and free for tethers. When she was a girl, she rode everyday into the mountains near her Idaho home. Once, her horse threw her and she broke her arm. She lifted it and examined it dangling helplessly. Her first thought was, “Mom‘s not going to let me keep riding this way. I’ve got to convince her I can still ride.” Of course, after the arm had a cast upon it, her mother saw it was useless to keep her down. She insisted that if Dottie could ride, she could do all of her chores as well — which she did.

When they brought her box of ashes to the door, Grandpa stood there, shaking and frail, and we wept because that’s all we have left of her and she is not in them and she is not with us.

I experience a deep, piercing pain in my heart when I think of the truth: my beautiful, fun-loving, inspiring Grandma Dottie is gone. I worry about remembering her. I worry more about forgetting her. Death brings so many confusing emotions. If I laugh, I feel guilty. When I forget, I am ashamed. When I remember, I feel pain. If I idealize, I feel self-pity — a sticky, romantic, sappy feeling that is disgusting. When I take a deep breath and stand tall, I am proud at my being brave and then ashamed that I feel pride over it. Confusion. Not only do I struggle with my actual emotions, I struggle with what I should feel, and then I can’t decipher which.

I build a picture in my mind of her and cry because I can’t see or hear or touch her to correct it. There’s the real rub — my memory is so faulty. Pictures cannot convey the richness in her bell-like voice. Memories don’t talk back. I weave mistakes into the fabric. Were her naughty brown eyes really naughty? My memory cannot surprise me like she could.

Words of comfort go like this:

She is at peace. She is with God. She is no longer in pain. She is in a better place.

But she is no longer here and that is what I want. She fretted about the election while she was sick. She tried to paint some chairs. My sister and cousin helped her finish them. All those worries and concerns are truly and utterly gone for her. Or are they? I find myself influenced by my Catholic best friend and enlisting Grandma’s help with my own worries. Does she watch like a spectator? Does she cheer like she was wont to do? Does she complain bitterly if I fail?

Of course, death makes us face what we believe about life after death. I confess my temptation to believe that the box of ashes are  it. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But in going to her house, the vast emptiness overwhelmingly communicates that something far more than a body is gone. Perhaps I have never felt a spirit so profoundly as when I experienced her spirit’s absence.

I believe in a resurrection. That indomitable, powerful spirit went somewhere. Where did she go?

I look in the stars and I know she is not there. Sometimes, I feel she is nearby.

I believe our bodies undergo a second baptism. Death is a dormancy period; our bodies are the seeds. All of nature speaks of this. All our stories, myths, and legends. There is no exchange of matter for the spirit, and if you met my grandmother, you would recognize that a box of ashes could not contain it. We’re just so limited in our imaginations. Truly, if all of creation travails like a woman in childbirth, then the womb shrouds us. Though we hear voices and perceive light and dark and activity, we have so little knowledge of the heaven or hell outside. I wonder if our spirits experience the same rude awakening, the pressing, squeezing, the yank, and the slap across the bottom? I laugh to think of it. And feel guilty for walking all over a sacred, superstitious subject.

I’m crying again. And wondering at myself — is this a sappy, self-pity party? Is this grief? I wish it could be more honest. I wish it could be clear and sweet like water and less muddy.

I just miss her. I don’t think I realized how much I modeled myself after her. I deeply admired her. I went to her house and took mental notes on her decorating style, what she cooked, what she wore, storing up ideas for how to live. I wear some of her clothes now and feel powerful and beautiful in them. It is not much different from when my little girl walked into the room stark naked in a pair of my heels. A few items of my grandmother’s and I’m ready for the world.

And here is where I wonder about the depths of the human heart and just how selfish it really is. Do I just miss my role model? Is the real pain I feel in wondering how I’m going to improve my life without having a person I truly, deeply admire to imitate? Did I ever really know her? I doubt my love. This is where I long for heaven. When the purity of heaven roots out the selfishness and secrets and I can love and know truly without the veils and flesh that imprison God’s breath within us. It frightens me because I know it will hurt but I cannot help but long to have the dreaded dragon flesh pierced and pulled away.

I’d like to find what’s really me and I hope there is something left that is sweet, true, pure, and clean.

 

 

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The Greatest Sermon I Ever Heard

Steinbeck wrote the words. Since I’ve no time for reading, I listen to audio books in the car. It’s how I grow in the midst of harried life. At first, I thought,

“I’m including way too much here.”

But then, in the spirit of anti-take-a-section-of-words-you-like-and-make-it-support-your-argument, I decided to copy the words of Steinbeck completely, honoring a man who chose his words carefully and wouldn’t want them sliced and diced for the awkward pleasures of lesser minds. He whittled and sanded and polished this prose until it shines brilliant. To jump to the climax is like taking a helicopter to the summit of a mountain — it’s …

cheating.

One must experience the moods and characters of the speakers. A reader should be present. So, I included the entire conversation.

I refrain from adding explanations or interpretations or commentary on the section. Like Scripture, it is pregnant with paradox. I’d be adding a few touch-ups to a Van Gogh. But I pinged several articles that speak on the matter. Notice how commentary reveals more about the writer than what has been written! Truth is so quickly captured and caged! The wildness is tamed.

Readers should wrestle alone with the words — in their cars and closets, in their shells and hearts, in the mornings and evenings.  Steinbeck writes it with so much gush and restraint that I really believe he crosses chasms on spider web threads — in other words, he speaks truth. I’ll only share my emotional experience with you. This whole week my face has shined with the glory of hearing it. I felt the pulsing of the planet’s core and I heard the singing of stars. The fragrance of lilacs floated by and the saints held their breath. God still speaks through men. We haven’t killed off all the prophets.

Do you remember when you read us the sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis and we argued about them?

“I do indeed. And that’s a long time ago.”

“Ten years nearly,” said Lee. “Well, the story bit deeply into me and I went into it word for word. The more I thought about the story, the more profound it became to me. Then I compared the translations we have– and they were fairly close. There was only one place that bothered me. The King James version says this–it is when Jehovah has asked Cain why he is angry. Jehovah says,”If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.’ It was the ‘thou shalt’ that struck me, because it is a promise that Cain would conquer sin.”

Samuel nodded. “And his children didn’t do it entirely,” he said.

Lee sipped his coffee. “Then I got a copy of the American Standard Bible. It was very new then. And it was different in this passage. It says, ‘Do thou rule over him.’ Now this is very different. This is not a promise, it is an order. And I began to stew about it. I wondered what the original word of the original writer had been that these very different translations could be made.”

Samuel put his palms down on the table and leaned forward and the old young light came into his eyes. “Lee,” he said, “don’t tell me you studied Hebrew!”

Lee said, “I’m going to tell you. And it’s a fairly long story. Will you have a touch of ng-ka-py?”

“You mean the drink that tastes of good rotten apples?”

“Yes, I can talk better with it.”

“Maybe I can listen better,” said Samuel.

While Lee went into the kitchen Samuel asked, “Adam, did you know about this?”

“No,” said Adam. “He didn’t tell me. Maybe I wasn’t listening.”

Lee came back with his stone bottle and three little porcelain cups so thin and delicate that the light shone through them. “Dlinkee Chinee fashion,” he said and poured the almost black liquor. “There’s a lot of wormwood in this. It’s quite a drink,” he said. “Has about the same effect as absinthe if you drink enough of it.”

Samuel sipped the drink. “I want to know why you were so interested,” he said.

“Well, it seemed to me that the man who could conceive this great story would know exactly what he wanted to say and there would be no confusion in his statement.”

“You say ‘the man.’ Do you then not think this is a divine book written by the inky finger of God?”

“I think the mind that could think this story was a curiously divine mind. We have had a few such minds in China too.”

“I just wanted to know,” said Samuel. “You’re not a Presbyterian after all.”

“I told you I was getting more Chinese. Well, to go on, I went to San Francisco to the headquarters of our family association. Do you know about them? Our great families have centers where any member can get help or give it. The Lee family is very large. It takes care of its own.”

“I have heard of them,” said Samuel.

“You mean Chinee hatchet man fightee Tong war over slave girl?”

“I guess so.”

“It’s a little different than that, really,” said Lee. “I went there because in our family there are a number of ancient reverend gentlemen who are great scholars. They are thinkers in exactness. A man may spend many years pondering a sentence of the scholar you call Confucius. I thought there might be experts in meaning who could advise me. They are fine old men. They smoke their two pipes of opium in the afternoon and it rests and sharpens them, and they sit through the night and their minds are wonderful. I guess no other people have been able to use opium well.”

Lee dampened his tongue in the black brew. “I respectfully submitted my problem to one of these sages, read him the story and told him what I understood from it. The next night four of them met and called me in. We discussed the story all night long.”

Lee laughed. “I guess it’s funny,” he said. “I know I wouldn’t dare tell it to too many people. Can you imagine four old gentlemen, the youngest is over ninety now, taking on the study of Hebrew? They engaged a learned rabbi. They took to the study as though they were children. Exercise books, grammar, vocabulary, simple sentences. You should see Hebrew written in Chinese ink with a brush! The right to left didn’t bother them as much as it would you, since we write up to down. Oh, they were perfectionists! They went to the root of the matter.”

“And you?” said Samuel.

“I went along with them, marveling at the beauty of their proud, clean brains. I began to love my race, and for the first time I wanted to be Chinese. Every two weeks I went to a meeting with them, and in my room here I covered pages with writing. I bought every known Hebrew dictionary. But the old gentlemen were always ahead of me. It wasn’t long before they were ahead of our rabbi; he brought a colleague in. Mr. Hamilton, you should have sat through some of those nights of argument and discussion. The questions, the inspection, oh, the lovely thinking–the beautiful thinking.”

“After two years we felt that we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important too–‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Do thou.’ And this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ ‘Thou mayest rule over sin.’ The old gentlemen smiled and nodded and felt the years were well spent. It brought them out of their Chinese shells too, and right now they are studying Greek.”

Samuel said, “It’s a fantastic story. And I’ve tried to follow and maybe I’ve missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?”

“Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and one can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel–‘Thou mayest’–that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’–it is also true that ‘That mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”

“Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?”

“Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.

Adam said, “Do you believe that, Lee?”

“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, “I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there. And do you know, those old gentlemen who were sliding gently down to death are too interested to die now?”

Adam said, “Do you mean these Chinese men believe the Old Testament?”

Lee said, “These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. They know that these sixteen verse are a history of humankind in any age or culture or race. They do not believe a man writes fifteen and three-quarter verses of truth and tells a lie with one verb. Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this–this is a ladder to climb to the stars.” Lee’s eyes shone. “You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.”

Adam said, “I don’t see how you could cook and raise the boys and take care of me and still do all this.”

“Neither do I,” said Lee. “But I take my two pipes in the afternoon, no more and no less, like the elders. And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing– maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed–because ‘Thou mayest.'”

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