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Essay

What’s on deck

By June 18, 2021 6 Comments
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It doesn’t bug me. The truth is, I love it, but it does scare me a bit: my granddaughter is becoming something and someone more than a toddler. She’s three whole years old now, and this “school picture” from the day-care center shows her at her desk. About her diligence I know nothing.

Maybe it’s the dark dress–I don’t know. Maybe it’s the way her bangs are thrown back and held with a rubber band; maybe it’s the setting, a classroom, so clearly at her work. Something about this picture is haunting, probably because I can’t help but fear that she’s becoming someone, as all of us do. She’s just beginning to be what she will be. First grade doesn’t seem light years away anymore. She is already who she is becoming.

So I sat out on the deck this morning, waiting for the dawn, having set up my tripod just to see if what the heavens would declare in what promised to be a big red sunrise. I don’t understand how the mind makes the connections it does; maybe I was still half-asleep. But for some odd reason I was thinking about that darling little school picture that somehow seemed scary and I was waiting for dawn when for some odd reason I thought of John Milton, “When I consider how my light is spent. . .” That’s the line. It’s not everyday Milton steps out of the sunrise, so I listened.

A sonnet–“On His Blindness.” If you’re wondering, no, I’m fine with a pair of reading glasses. But Milton went blind, had to dictate most of Paradise Lost to his daughters, as I seem to remember. But there this old sonnet was, right up front in my mind.

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask.

Not so fondly either. What he means is “foolishly,” Google says. It’s an old usage, which I could have guessed because Milton, in his blindness, is not blind at all. He knows what he’s grousing about, and he knows the Lordly answer to his gripes. But he can’t not howl a little, like me, maybe like all of us: “It’s just not fair,” he says, foolishly. God expects what he does from me–and us–then renders me sightless, the old bard says. When he’s called to judgment (yes, Milton was a Puritan) he’ll get hammered for not accomplishing what he should have. But I’m blind and it’s just not fair.

Poor guy knows the answers to the tough questions before he asks them, but, dang it, he can’t help asking them anyway. Me too.

But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

It is a famous last line that patience offers here, a fine conscience, if you can stand it.

There I sat on the deck behind our house, scattered clouds igniting up to the sun, a slowly building fire. There I sat, reading Milton, half-asleep and still just a little angry because of how much of my granddaughter’s life I am almost certain to miss, at 73 years old. Painful thought. Our oldest granddaughter is 21. I’m quite certain I’ll see her married; there’s a better-the-even chance I’ll see a child of hers someday. But this little charmer in her first school picture? I may never know her as an adult. Her whole life may escape me.

From the moment I got up, it seemed to me that this June dawn’s constellation of clouds held the promise of a sweeping, fiery sky. About that, at least, I wasn’t wrong. The sermon from the Cathedral of Earth and Sky came through richly, a celebration of the Creator’s own joy.

And this bystander came heir to a blessing just then. I’ll drop in a picture here to prove it. I had nothing to do with the imperial beauty the heavens proclaimed through the entire eastern sky. I had only to stand and wait and love, to remind myself that worrying about missing the joy of my granddaughter’s life can itself shorten my days. Like Milton, I too am talking foolishness.

Give thanks for what’s up on the screen in front of you, old guy, for darling school pictures, for a sonnet from an old blind man who knew better than to get angry with God. Give thanks for stunning morning light. Give thanks for yet another day.

There’s so much for which to be thankful, the dawn said.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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