A massive cloud seen from above

Confessions of a Week

Eileen called today about coffee and I told her I was sick. Well it was only half a lie—a preacher's lie, you would call it, dear—because I do have a bit of a cold from the draft beneath the back door. I shouldn’t avoid Eileen. She was friend enough to stay distant while we were married, and friend enough to only send a card when you passed. I know she wants to comfort me—she has loved me since we were kids. She only came to see me when the greatest sorrow had passed, and it was right of her to do. She is a good woman. But today I can only think of you. When she called, I was sitting in the living room with a cup of coffee on the glass table by the couch. It’s frigid outside these past three months, and rainy, and there’s a creaky dampness to the house that won’t release its hold on me. Sometimes I look up from my reading and it sounds like the clock is ticking out of pace. And the painting in the den makes itself crooked each morning. Did you straighten it every day as the dusty sunlight filtered through the curtains, humming hymns to renew our morning thoughts to God? It surprises me daily what it takes for a man to live in a house alone. Anyways, before Eileen called, I put the coffee down next to the book of Ansel Adams photos we have there for guests. There is a beautiful picture on the cover of some majestic mountain, printed on the laminate book jacket in stark black and white. Such bleak but alluring power within it. But I have never been too fond of that book, it was a Christmas gift—no, housewarming, back when I carried you through the threshold like a heady groom along with the sweet promises of a renewed youth. And that was only three years before you passed. So I was in a mood when she called, and I told her I was sick. But you see, I dwell too much. I am going out to the garden now. I will call Eileen back tomorrow.

There is a sparrow preparing a nest in the hole the electrician made in the wall and left there (you despised him for that!). It is gathering bits of cloth and leaves from who-knows-where. I suppose I will have a family of sparrows this spring. I wonder how the birds know that spring approaches. I wonder how they know how to build a home. “Will not your Father in heaven provide for you also, who are worth more than many sparrows?” No, that's not the right passage—the sparrows bit was about death. I'm mixing up my scripture; see what's become of me? The elders were kind enough to give me six months of time to grieve, but now I must return to my work. It’s a strange thing, grief, not at all something I was prepared for. How many of the congregation have I comforted in death? How many more have I visited who were grieving? When my time came, it did me no good. It showed me up, dear. I was alone in the night. But these days I can feel you again—not like a ghost, or a memory; something else. A presence. Something like the presence of God. Easy to miss; beautiful to encounter.

I placed my mug next to the Adams book again this morning. This time I opened it and leafed through, if only to release its power on my attention. I compared you to a mountain once. I learned a song on guitar to please you when we were young (“rolling over your rocky spine, the glaciers made you and now you’re mine”). You were as beautiful as any wonder of creation to me. We dove deep into the pleasures of youth then. We found some holy one-ness in spirit. But even mountains erode to dust, and the pictures on the coffee table preserve them as only ghostly remnants. I have photos of you, but I don't look at them very often anymore. But what a sorry man I am! I suppose you laugh at me. I suppose you can do nothing but laugh and smile now—I’m not thinking of heaven, what a cliché—I mean in photos. Our Lady Sarah, Ever Joyful. I’m getting distracted. I was writing a sermon for Sunday when I remembered the mountains. It was on—what was it, it was—perhaps I should call Eileen now. I think I should.

I have a confession. When I wrote to you about Arkansas, I wasn’t trying to describe what it was like. I wrote something, probably something pretty, something to maybe take your mind out of that hospital room for a while and give you someplace lovely to be. I don’t know why, but I regret that all of a sudden. Arkansas is not very beautiful from the highway. It’s mostly swamps and marshes and things. The swamps are so dense there they discovered a species of woodpecker which they thought had been extinct for decades just wandering about. That’s what makes the news in Arkansas, too. I’m sorry, I should have told you. Then you could have been where I was, instead of somewhere else. When I returned home it was like years had passed over your body. Only your eyes remained bright and vivid. You quoted Psalms to the nurses and smiled and prayed aloud in the evening. You made sure everyone knew of the hope you had. But when we were alone sometimes on those nights we cried, and we cursed, and we begged. One morning you prodded me awake, your fingers pushing weakly at my forehead as it rested on the arm of the chair, until my glasses fell off. As I opened my eyes I could see that you had been awake all night. You said, “If I’m going to enter those gates, I will enter them with thanksgiving.” And you sang the hymn for me, and the nurse waiting in the doorway with your breakfast. The nurse came to service that Sunday, and to your funeral the next week.

I called Eileen and we had lunch today. We met at the sandwich shop near the church with the healthy-looking green painted walls. I can see how she is impatient. Well, she is fifty-five, and after all, I am nearly fifty-eight this June. She smiles politely and covers our meetings with confession and theology, a disguise of a pastor meeting one of his flock. But I am beginning to love her, the way I did once when we were teenagers. Did I ever tell you about that? I’m sure I did. You always seemed a little jealous around her. But then, you were always a little jealous; I shouldn’t use rose-colored glasses. You protested my counseling women for years after we were married, even old matrons! We fought over that. Little explosions and spats at dinner, refusal in bed (“unbiblical!” I declared selfishly), more than one broken glass. There were other things, too—the money, the car, my interest in cigars—but the fights over jealousy I regret the most. I think you knew even then that we would never be able to have children. I think I knew but was too proud to give in. Well, you know that I am sorry. And why should I dwell on these things anymore? “I will remember your sins no more,” He said, and why should any man hoard what God throws away? I say these things, and yet I will not put them aside.

There was a massive white cloud floating on the eastern horizon this morning, inching slowly toward the highway. Its base was at the treeline and the top was almost covering the sun. What I can’t seem to understand is why people seem to love mountains, but never look up at the clouds. There is an Ansel Adams scene laid on the blue sky daily. It made my soul praise God for the first time in so long. When I looked up again later, it was gone. I suppose it floated away, or the sun finally burned it through. The sun is the glory and death of all clouds. This is a mystery to me. What is a beautiful cloud without a silver lining? But in the end they are burned away. The sun is the birth of all clouds too—of course, I’m only now realizing—because it evaporates the water from the ground. There is something there to think about. I will ask Eileen about it.

The house is falling apart. There’s a draft through the crack in the back door that’s chilling the whole place up. And it’s unusually cold for March, I guess it’s all the rain. I can’t bear to patch that hole in the siding now, either, since the sparrows moved in. I can hear them rummaging in the wall of the living room. Maybe I will regret it when the eggs are hatched. It’s comforting, though, in a way, those little noises. I spend too much time now sitting on the worn-out couch and staring at the piano which I never learned to play. Oh, and besides that, I was trying to dust and my hand slipped a bit. I knocked down the clay vase you bought in Valle Crucis at the general store. It shattered to pieces. I told Eileen about it at lunch yesterday. She said, “You could write a sermon about that,” and I didn’t know what to say to that, so I said “I guess I could.” And she said, “I’d like to hear it.” She has a confident transparency these days. It’s magnetic. She does not much care for clouds, though. I mentioned the sun, the rise and fall of them, the cycles of life and death. I was hoping she would see the gravity of it which pulls at me; the spiritual weight. But she seemed unimpressed. I said, “Maybe I should write a sermon on that,” and she said “I think you should stick with the clay,” with this plucky, self-confident grin—maniacal! Lovely—contrary, beautifully clear, like a river in spring.

On your bed—your deathbed—you said to me, “you’re so young.” Yet you were two years behind me. On that day, though, you didn’t look it. Your bald head tied in a colorful scarf, your piercing blue eyes beneath hairless eyebrows. Long ago forsaking makeup, and all thought of beauty—but you had the beauty of a joyful soul still glowing with love. You said I was young, that I should not stay alone. It was repulsive to me at the time. I had you, for so long as you were had, and now I would have God only. And you said—and this was supremely clever, my dear—that even when God walked with Adam in the garden, He said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” And of course I retorted, “But Paul said he wished all men would be unmarried.” “Forget Paul!” – I admire you for smiling through the words that released your hold on my love—“just don’t mope about!” I wonder if the two of you are arguing now.

I must write a sermon. It’s Saturday evening, for goodness’ sake—you would never let me procrastinate so badly. I can’t get clay out of my head. It’s true, there is plenty to go on (“O LORD, You are our Father, We are the clay, and You our potter"), but I don’t know how to say that the vase is broken. There’s no lesson there. God is not so careless as to knock us off the mantle. And yet we fall…

I was thinking about clouds again as I drove to church this morning. Their beauty is so fleeting, carried on currents of wind. One lasts a day or less, and none like it will ever appear again. "They are like the grass of the field, which today is planted, and tomorrow gathered and burned." At first I could not decide if this makes them more beautiful or more tragic. It's both, of course. It occurs to me that God paints with time and all chaos as his brush. Long after our fragile art crumbles away, His has already been reborn a thousand times. The flowers have begun to bloom, and soon the rest of the garden will follow. How many times have they bloomed here under my care? And how many times will they bloom again? I pulled the weeds, but they return as well. "How great are your works, oh LORD, how unsearchable are your thoughts."