New Morning Mercies

After Anthony Bourdain, after a fashion.

On the day my next-door neighbor died
I went to breakfast in a hurricane.
The water ran through the floor of Waffle House
As waffle batter ran dry in the kitchen.

While I sat, deep in conversation,
Trying to imagine how to remake the world,
A home-health nurse brought a man with his walker
To a corner table for weekly worship.

A family from out of state sat down
And got up after twenty minutes waiting
To have their order taken, unwilling
To further delay progress to Florida.

I shouted across bad coffee for hope,
Over the drone of a country jukebox
And the pleas of hungry addicts, but this—
This—is the world as it is, more or less.

What is the life of a saint but suffering—
Patiently, daily, not in crucifixion
Or being drawn and quartered or burned at the stake,
But simple, faithful endurance through each day?

What is the life of a saint but living
In the tension between having one’s cake
And eating it, with holy disregard
For the contrast between spirit and flesh?

The next day was the first crisp morning of fall,
Broken only by the first southbound monarch,
Bearing the indignity of migration
For the joy set before him with foreordained poise.

When he gets to Cerro Prieto,
He’ll be welcomed as an ancestral spirit
Together with multitudes lighting
In sacred firs, echoing resurrection.

Image: Getty Images

Pulling the Weeds: “Kindly Use” in Our Shared Relationships

Here in the Southeastern U.S., plants are the backdrop of everything. Kudzu is only the half of it—plenty of native species are just as eager to engulf any unsuspecting open space. Nature abhors a vacuum, and in a region as warm and humid as this one, green growing things rise with astonishing speed to the challenge.

Tending a piece of land is mostly a never-ending battle between the things you intended to grow and those you didn’t. Old-field succession is almost an olympic sport here, with poison ivy, various tree saplings, and the ghosts of escaped groundcovers from a nearby bed jockeying for position in a fresh-cut lawn almost before the mower has cooled off.

This, of course, presents a metaphor.

Relationships require tending. Our natural and forged connections with neighbors, friends, family, church, city, county, state, nation, and world are just as apt to be swamped by the vines of division, suspicion, ingratitude, and pride as an empty farm is to be swallowed by the forest. It is difficult not to sense that we are in a great period of “re-wilding” in all our allegiances. The careful work of sowing, watering, and weeding our mutual loves has not kept pace with an entropy juiced with the artificial fertilizer of the Internet.

Nowhere is this more true than in politics, or, more precisely the subsuming of all things into politics. It used to be a truism that all politics is local, but now even local politics is global. Every idea, every passion, every preference has been agglomerated into one of two opposing commercial-entertainment-culture-habit-values models that demand every human interaction conform to themselves. They function like religions, and actual church life and theological study have trouble competing.

Bonds of kinship, proximity, shared experience, and responsibility wither as these new growths take root. Like some invasive species that secrete chemicals to inhibit the growth of competing plants, these complexes then work to ensure that nothing else that grows but their own clones. These replacements bonds are sterile, only capable of using up the good created by the rich ecosystem they supplanted and never producing fruit.

This new field is depleted of trust. Acquaintances size each other up to decide whether this new person is a confidant or threat. Instead of cherishing their closeness and dwelling fondly on what they share, old friends quickly dive into political questioning to suss out whether the connection is still viable on that basis alone. Parents and children would rather fight about matters far removed from their actual concerns than continue the project of learning how to give and share life.

Performing Self-Assurance

This is not to say that there is no merit in social and political ideas of either the “right” or the “left”. Rather, these ideas cease to have value when uprooted from the soil of interconnectedness that makes any real political life possible. Epithets like “cancel culture” and “virtue signaling” spring up when there is a pervasive sense that reality is under assault by those on the “other side” of a given issue (as though there were always only two). When everyone you disagree with is assumed to be insincere and on the make, calculating what they say to conform to a standard language deck passed out by their dark overlords, is it any wonder we can’t have a conversation?

When it comes to policing these filters (shibboleths?), our attitudes are by turns “evangelical”—suffused with the feeling of having figured out the real story and eagerness to have others believe—and “fundamentalist”—ensuring that our perceived opponents understand that they are wrong, I am right, and that this makes me superior to them. Imperative in both these attitudes is urgency. Time spent caring for one another, listening to one another, and reflecting on what we learn from each other is a threat to the system, and so must be avoided at all costs. Far better to fling slander from a safe distance.

Perhaps, though, the adherence to views and language we demand of others is only the projected manifestation of the fear we feel. We wonder what it would be like to lose our precarious place in the world, to disappoint the circle that holds us and feeds us only so long as we stay in line, so every opportunity to take down someone else (who, notably, isn’t us) is a little hit of the fentanyl of self-assurance. One less opportunity for it to be me who falls. The ethics of the cool kids’ table have expanded to the world entire. But in direct proportion to how performative a virtue becomes, it ceases to be formative. Good things are often more in need of cultivation than defense.

Learning to Be “Kind”

Novelist, poet, essayist, and farmer Wendell Berry wrote in The Unsettling of America about the value of “kindly use” of land—that is, intimate knowledge of a place and its particulars that protects it from abuse and fits it to flourish in producing what it is designed to produce. Kindly use is knowing not to plow in ways that will cause erosion, recognizing that some slopes need to be forever forested, or recognizing that a low spot will always be a wetland instead of a crop field. This is in contrast to “general use” that seeks to apply an outside set of land management practices based on abstract principles without benefit of local knowledge. Such use is often abuse—doing more harm than good.

What’s good for land is good for people. Kindly use of relationships calls for deep knowledge of one another. Good manners and professional habits are good insofar as they provide a baseline for courtesy, but are ill-suited to expressing real love for specific people—there is no kindness without intimacy. Even less so making shared politics a prerequisite for friendship. Assumptions that have no room for correction or curiosity toward others offer no basis for lasting kinship. Restoring community among our splintered selves calls for a faithful pursuit of “re-localization,” rooting our understanding of people, places, and viewpoints in the things themselves instead of filtering all local knowledge through political blinders.

In such a re-localization of our loves, we have to re-learn how to repent and forgive. None of us can live up to what we are striving toward, even if we are all striving toward the same thing. The most vicious patterns I see now are the accusation of double standards between the two all-encompassing “teams”. The right response to such, isn’t indifference to the standards, though. Perpetrating the same excesses you’re upset about just to “own the libs” or “trigger the snowflakes” just salts the earth for everyone. The process of cultivating virtue always starts with giving and receiving grace. The good works come after. There is no other path to hope and wholeness.

Again, Berry is instructive. Though he has made a life of argument for very definite stances on conservation and a host of political and economic concerns, his art has been to winsomely persuade and hold out hope that anyone is capable, at some point, of choosing a different path. Theologian Russell Moore, writing in praise of Berry’s 87th birthday recently, shared a story:

“I am not sure I’ve ever felt more sheepish than when, sitting at his dinner table in Kentucky, my iPhone started ringing in my pocked, right there with one who is, um, not a fan of such devices. When I cringed and said, ‘sorry,’ he said ‘Well, we’re all sinners, aren’t we?'”

We are all sinners. Expecting perfection is unbiblical and unholy. Rather, in the words of the Second Helvetic Confession, “yet we must hope well of all, and not rashly judge any man to be a reprobate.”

In a world well practiced at casting down the unrighteous and taking no delight in the serious business of repentance, daring to say “we’re all sinners, aren’t we” is act of utmost courage. In it, we stand up to the dictator within. Every act of grace is cultivating the hope that others might see, take up the call, and follow. The life you save may be your own.

It’s a dangerous world out there. Be “kind.”

Lookout Mountain, June

Wherever orange and ochre ditch-lillies
Cradle a rural highway’s curve or the
Summersweet goodness of black raspberries
Calls out from an overgrown, vacant lot,
Recall an abundant God who delights
In the mysterious placement of gifts
To slake the thirst of withered, weary souls.

In the chirps of bluebird hatchlings crying
For their food from within a trashcan nest,
In every kind and holy word spoken
Amid hurried striving for peace and rest,
In unsought, unbought graces coursing through
The veins of the world, receive the oracle—
Witness that there are no cosmic orphans.

Seeing the Dead among the Living: Lessons from a Graveyard

We live next to a cemetery. Not merely nearby or down the street, but directly at the end of the driveway, visible out the kitchen window. And not an old family plot, either, but a commercial cemetery complete with a two-story mausoleum building.

Sometimes it’s a source of humor. When new guests ask what it’s like having such a property next door, my standard response is “At least the neighbors are quiet.” After windstorms, we pick the shredded remains of silk flowers from our backyard fence.

Occasionally it’s an opportunity for embarrassment, like when I rev up the lawnmower only to roll around the fence to the stares of indignant mourners at a graveside service.

Whenever it’s not raining, it’s a shady place to break from the day for a quick walk or pacing phone conversation—all the more so during the past 14 months of working mostly from home.

In the winter months, when the sun’s angle has tilted toward the southern horizon, it is the foreground of an almost daily flash of blinding beauty at the edge of the night.

In the spring, the trees fill with bluebirds, flickers, flycatchers, and robins, and the tombstones become battlements for feral cats attempting to make a meal of any of the above, or fighting with one another for territorial supremacy. Its wooded lower slopes have played host to broods of red fox kits, more than one nest of red-tailed hawks, a clutch of barred owl eggs, and even a litter of coyote pups—all this in the middle of a semi-urban area of a mid-sized metro.

Always, the cemetery is present. A patient, faithful memento mori that demands not to be ignored or passed off as a mere park. When you do stop and look, as I’ve been compelled to do for the past 13-and-a-half years of living here, that memento grows sharper still, telling stories of demise with a painful specificity that cuts across many walks of life.

At the top of the hill are the original burials, capped by weathered granite obelisks with barely visible names and dates, the oldest of which mark the resting place of people born over 200 years ago. Civil War veterans and even those who never lived long enough to see the battles that raged just a mile away in 1863 share the high ground.

Further down, on the side adjacent to the road, large, more ornate markers shining with glaze blare out the names of prominent citizens of our town—names that also signify many of our streets, parks, and buildings. Undoubtedly many of these were good men and women, but whatever services they rendered or businesses they built did not stop the passing of time that brought them here. Their personalities, triumphs, and trials fade as surely as the moss and diesel soot slowly unburnish their stones.

The new mausoleum is, as yet, mostly uninhabited by the deceased. There are a few scattered along the back wall, cheaper than the side visible to the road, and some cremated remains tucked in the specially designed corner slots. Most of the plaques denote pre-purchases, unclosed date-dashes extolling the financial prudence of a city councilman here, a dentist there, and the widow of a recently interred husband in the adjacent hollow.

When you get to individual graves amid the crab-grassed rows, the dead begin to speak their wisdom more directly.

The shared tomb of a husband and wife tells of sorrow and separation. He died in 1947, while she—were the headstone speaking true—is still roaming the earth today at the age of 151. More likely, she had to leave home when widowed, passing away in another place, her family unable to bear the cost to have her body delivered back here to be interred with her spouse’s.

A marker for a young woman of 23 who died in 1935 curiously bears her maiden name, along with a note that she was the wife of her husband—presumably a newlywed unable to afford the stone and honoring her parents (who could) by retaining their family name. Perhaps she died trying to bring a child into the world or from some then-incurable infection. The inscription below testifies to this grieving widower’s character and presence of mind, and never fails to catch my attention: “The Lord gave. He took. He doeth all things well.”

Under one of the sprawling willow oaks, a swath of tiny marble lambs mark the children’s section. Headstones of dozens of infants, toddlers, and stillborn children, some whose birthdays was their death-day, offer a solemn reminder that death plays no favorites. Such losses seem foreign to our age of NICUs, pediatric surgery, and antibiotics, but surely remain all too present for those who have endured pregnancy losses, without the funeral and the lamb to silently invite the rest of us to share in grief and support.

The cemetery itself is part of the ballad, its general disrepair a steady bass note. A few years ago, the family who founded it in 1847 either sold the property or outsourced its management (it’s not quite clear which is actually the case). Now, it’s not uncommon for a month or more to pass between mowings, or for storm-downed tree limbs to lay across paths and markers for weeks. Leaves go unraked, brush is piled in plain sight, and fill dirt left over from recent burials is mounded 3-4 feet high at the top of the hill. Some graves are still well-tended by survivors who bring new flowers with each season, but many markers have cracked or fallen over, with no one among the living able to muster enough concern to repair them. Even cemeteries must someday die.

I’m not going to tie this up into a simple sermon on how to value each day as though it could be your last (though each of my neighbors would attest that it certainly could). Consider it instead an invitation to see what is preaching to you from your own backyard, if you’ll stop rushing by long enough to look. Soak in the wide shot and the closeups and attend to the director’s framing. Dust you are, and to dust you will return, but between your forming and decay, a world of wonders beckons.