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Essay

Every common bush afire

By November 20, 2013 No Comments
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I’m very much looking forward to Thanksgiving next week.  It’s definitely my favorite holiday, hands-down. 

Of course, I love the food (and the break from work is quite welcome), but mostly I love Thanksgiving because it’s a day about celebrating plentitude.  And there is never a day when I do not have much to be thankful for.

I am absolutely convinced that gratitude must lie at the very center of our lives.  It must be an animating force in our words and our actions.   Saying “thank you” requires attentiveness—noticing what you’ve been given, noticing what has been done for you.  But attentiveness—this paying attention—is something our culture does not much value.  Instead we are, as Matthew Arnold puts it, befuddled by the “thousand nothings of the hour.”  In other words, we are singularly inattentive people, too frazzled by too many things, too many demands on our time.  Sound familiar?

The consequence of inattention is that, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning points out, we miss not just the wonder of God’s plenitude, but we miss the chance to respond appropriately:

Earth’s crammed with heaven

and every common bush afire with God

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.

Gratitude requires paying attention to all the things over which we have absolutely no control (which—let’s be honest—is almost everything).  To notice these things, to understand their source, and to say thank you for them means we acknowledge that we can’t do it all, that we haven’t done it all, that we reject the idolatry of our own omnicompetence. 

A world where “every common bush [is] afire with God” is a world where everyday life is holy—and where giving thanks must happen without ceasing. 

We need to find ways to see anew how “earth’s crammed with heaven,” and for me, one of those ways is through the lens of poetry.  I recently finished teaching a four week class on “Contemporary Poets of Faith” with the wonderful folks at CALL (Calvin Academy of Lifelong Learning).  In our final week, we examined Christian Wiman’s poignant poem about a diner in West Texas.  In “Sitting Down to Breakfast Alone,” Wiman gives us a picture of the community friends and family create in a small, now-lost town.  My class agreed it was a foretaste of heaven indeed. 

 

Sitting Down to Breakfast Alone

Christian Wiman

 

Brachest, she called it, gentling grease
over blanching yolks with an expertise
hone from three decades of dawns
at the Longhorn Diner in Loraine,
where even the oldest in the men’s booth
swore as if it were scripture truth
they’d never had a breakfast better,
rapping a glass sharply to get her
attention when it went sorrowing
so far into some simple thing–
the jangly door or a crusted pan,
the wall clock’s black, hitchy hands–
that she would startle, blink, then grin
as if discovering them all again.
Who remembers now when one died
the space that he had occupied
went unfilled for a day, then two, three,
until she unceremoniously
plunked plates down in the wrong places
and stared their wronged faces
back to banter she could hardly follow.
Unmarried, childless, homely, “slow,”
she knew coffee cut with chamomile
kept the grocer Paul’s ulcer cool,
yarrow in gravy eased the islands
of lesions in Larry Borwick’s hands,
and when some nightlong nameless urgency
sent him seeking human company
Brother Tom needed hash browns with cheese.
She knew to nod at the litany of cities
the big-rig long-haulers bragged her past,
to laugh when the hunters asked
if she’d pray for them or for the quail
they went laughing off to kill,
and then–envisioning one
rising so fast it seemed the sun
tugged at it–to do exactly that.
Who remembers where they all sat:
crook-backed builders, drought-faced framers,
VF’ers muttering through their wars,
night-shift roughnecks so caked in black
it seemed they made their way back
every morning from the dead.
Who remembers one word they said?
The Longhorn Diner’s long torn down,
the gin and feedlots gone, the town
itself now nothing but a name
at which some bored boy has taken aim,
every letter light-pierced and partial.
Sister, Aunt Sissy, Bera Thrailkill,
I picture you one dime-bright dawn
grown even brighter now for being gone
bustling amid the formica and chrome
of that small house we both called home
during the spring that was your last.
All stories stop: once more you’re lost
in something I can merely see:
stream spiriting out of black coffee,
the scorched pores of toast, a bowl
of apple butter like edible soil,
bald cloth, knifelight, the lip of a glass,
my plate’s gleaming, teeming emptiness.

 

This poem appears in Christian Wiman’s collection Every Riven Thing.  This copy is taken from Bill Moyers’ website. Visit Moyers’ website to see Wiman read this poem.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

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