Better Than Life
I write from a white rocker on my front porch this morning. The light is quiet, gentled by strips of thick, cotton cloud. The aspens have just reached the height of their turning. No green or grey or brown is left, just gold. Just sunlight distilled and shimmering in a fragile weave of water and wood and the silken wonders we call leaves. They glitter in the low wind and I watch and lean toward them, my whole self beguiled by their beauty. The gold cries out to me, like a word spoken, a song suffusing the weary emptiness of my mind with a message I cannot quite understand. I long to hold on to that voice until I do. This is my first day to be truly at home. To begin that strange and solemn thing called settling into normal life. I am ripe as the aspens with the gold of ideals. I feel kindred to their intensity of color, for in it I glimpse the fire of my own heart, the drive I bear to live life well as I settle back into rhythm after months of travel and work and constant noise. I have looked forward to this day, this civilized, front-porch minute for longer than I can remember. I have so many things to write, so much life I want to craft, so many habits and disciplines and friendships I want to form, now, right now. The fever of it all is a spice in my mouth, a faster beat of my heart.
But I am weary as I sit here in my chair. I cannot force my mind to productivity, and my body, pushed by weeks of travel and lack of sleep past all endurance, resists my fervent demands for productivity. I am disgruntled. I try to write and am distracted by details. I try to read and find myself dreaming instead. I plan out my schedule, and feel suddenly overwhelmed by all I am driven to do. And right in the midst of it all, like an attack on a weakened opponent, come the blows of old insecurities and secret wishes, the ones that always come when I am down. Truth be told, on this day, when I hoped to be golden and strong and ready to take on the world, I am as frail and weary as the fading leaves.
I glance at the aspens, and again, I almost catch their song. But their beauty, their whisper is fleeting, and the harder I try to keep it, the quicker it seeps away. Like my own drained verve. Sometimes in the midst of the ordinary, like today, I am struck by a moment of such all-suffusing despair, it leaves me breathless as if I had fallen hard in the dark. The darkness is not a doubting of my faith, it's just a grieving over the daily, grit-your-teeth work of trying to live redeemed in a fallen world. God is good and I am loved, I know, and beauty is possible even here. But its just such weary work. I am so tired of effort, I am tortured by the dreaming it requires, and the sense that I never quite attain all that I see. Sometimes I wonder how I will go on, every day, for all my life, through this mishmash of hope and failure, beauty and disappointment, love lived right next to unrequited need.
The wind is swifter now and I am chilled. The light contracts and darkens as the clouds weave themselves more thickly over the blue. Soon, I will have to go inside. I reach for my Bible. At least I will read my customary Psalm before I submit to the cold and my own discouragement. My fingers move automatically to my book mark, I open the old, creased pages, wrinkled by twelve years of my touch and travel and tears, and the first words stare up at me:
O God, you are my God. My soul thirsts for you, my flesh yearns for you, In a dry and weary land where there is no water.
I recognize that thirst. I recognize that need, the sense that one will burn up from the inside with desire for God, or life, or all the beauty that is beyond our grasp. I laugh, begrudgingly, at the apropos nature of this Psalm to my heart.
Because your lovingkindness is better than life, I will praise you as long as I live...
How can David say that? Life is what I crave, life to the full and sweet and utter spending of my being. The lack of it, the knowledge that I never live up to what I can imagine, never love as deeply as I desire, create or act as purely as I can imagine, is the bitterness in my mouth today, souring my hope even as I begin the work of living well afresh. Yet David says here that the lovingkindness of God is better than life. Better than life at its fullest, life at its sweetest. Better than breath and sight and very being itself.
Last month, on a visit to the South, I visited in an old graveyard on a dim autumn morning. The human soul is always a little awed in the presence of death, and so I was hushed in spirit as I wandered. I saw the mist like arms around the hills of the place and the trees, still, watching, tall as old age, with long told lives, and some too short ones too, planted under the stones at their feet. I sat at a bend in the path with my back against a tree, staring at the grey stones and breathing the stillness of it all.
And a quiet, a great, fathomless calm came to me. The hush was something that came from behind my years and stretched away beyond me. Or rather, it was a quiet unceasing, that the mist and thought of death let me taste just for an instant. And I knew that time, with his angry, hurried face of busy life, or his strained, soured face of frustrated hope in the everyday, is a short-lived storm. Perhaps the fallen face of time is the one that batters and harries and provokes us with need. Perhaps the one who would deceive us hopes to turn our eyes from the broad, deep quiet that is eternity, that is Love, in which we, and even time itself, are cradled. In the graveyard, I knew that there is a great eternal light, beyond time, brighter than being, a goodness from before our days that draws us beyond all we know in the now. The lovingkindness of God, better than life.
I sit back as the wind dies down and remember that morning. The aspens glimmer, their gold fills my sight. And I know that I was wrong to fret about my frailty. Wrong to fume at my frustrated longing for ideals, as if they are something I make and bring to fulfillment myself. For what am I but one sliver of God's great creation? His beauty is free of my frailty, it burgeons and grows whether or not I manage the perfection for which I yearn. Guilt falls from me, and even the gall I feel at my weakness. For a love, better the life, a love beyond time sustains me. To live redeemed means simply to love from the warmth it brings, to write from the hope it gives. Lovingkindness has entered my darkness. With strong, warm hands, love reaches into my weary days and holds my heart together even as it draws me forward, out of time-bound, broken life, into its eternal self.
The aspens are singing now in a strong wind that smells of storm. Oh the wild dance of their silver and gold, the music of their many whispers. The wind rips a stream of them free and they dart through the air, flashing laughter before they fade from my sight. I stand, my own eyes bright with their gold, my spirit alight with the love that formed us both. The wind drives us forward, but going, we sing. As my hand turns the knob of my front door, the music fills my ears.