Lately, I’ve been reading vintage newspaper columns by Ernie Pyle. In one he describes a man who began each day “in his silences.” That’s how I start my days. In my silences, the things hanging on the wall in front of my desk usually help me come to terms with my life and the world. But on the dim, damp days of winter, the wall is sometimes blank.
Starting the day in silences is probably more common with old people, but it’s been my practice since before I was old. I can’t say it’s always been pleasant or uplifting, which is probably what one expects from the practice. I do it anyway.
My guess is it’s a response to a universal aspect of human life. Characterization of the apostle Paul as “the messenger of the heart set free” gets at that point. In secular culture, the novelist James Lee Burke’s Cajun hero, Dave Robicheaux, struggles to keep “the snakes in their basket.” And Garrison Keillor’s Powder Milk Biscuits “give people the courage to get up and do what has to be done.”
Those rare people who are fundamentally at peace and without fear are recognized as saints. The rest of us turn to silences and such reminders and assurances as we are given. I find them on my wall.
At the top left is a framed batik. It’s one of a cartoon-like series that features a figure known as a Judy bird. The Judy bird on my wall is pecking at a typewriter. At the bottom are the words, “If they asked me, I could write a book.” I’ve been looking at it for around fifty years. In the beginning, it was an expression of hope. Then, for a period when I was engaged full-time in a mostly unsuccessful effort to get published, it was about disappointment. Today, its message is mixed. It makes me a little wistful, but not especially unhappy. Mostly, I recall with gratitude that it was a gift meant to encourage me to give my fledgling ability full rein.
Other items remind me that there is more to my writing than rejection slips. There’s a poster advertising a stage dramatization of a radio-play version of my novella, A Franklin Manor Christmas. I had to publish the novella myself; commercial publishers and agents told me that Christmas stories don’t sell well. Nonetheless, readers let me know now and then that it has given them something they value. I’ve heard of a person who takes a seat by her Christmas tree every year, and, listening to a recording of the story, slips into the enchanted world of angels and mystery that I created.
Also, there is a national award that deems me to be first rate at writing the personal essay, in particular, some on this blog. (There is almost no market for personal essays, but regard is regard.)
When the dim light of the season pushes me around most forcefully, I look at these reminders and see little other than failure. On bright days, it seems that I’ve let my light shine a little. However that may be, I’ve enjoyed the gift of a vocation, and I’m grateful for that.
A 1948 snapshot of my father and me shows a man who never had a vocation other than providing for our family and being a good husband and father. It was an honorable and demanding undertaking, but struggling interminably to get out from under the financial burden inflicted by the depression and choices he and my mother made a long time ago is not comparable to having a vocation of the sort I’ve enjoyed. Or is it? In any case, that good man was a person of faith; he would not have held up under the weight of his burdens without accepting that just holding up was his calling. Perhaps he found some measure of fulfillment in the struggle. I hope so.
On days when winter blues are strong, I’m blind even to Ann rising naked from a summer lake, part mythological expression of innocence and life force, part carnal promise. You wouldn’t think clouds and chill could be strong enough to blot her out from my awareness.
To Ann’s right is a black and white lithograph depicting some men in sixteenth-century clothes gathered around a table drafting the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. It was a gift from friends who knew how much I value The Book of Common Prayer. It has shaped the English language to an extent beyond comprehension; its words and cadences are my model of well-shaped writing; it expresses with sublime elegance the faith and practice that are the ground of my being. Even it escapes my notice sometimes.
I think it likely that Christmas came to be celebrated during the dark days of winter because that’s when we frightened shepherds need most to hear the angel singing “fear not.” Those two words alone may offer some bit of encouragement to non-Christians. For those with ears to hear it, there is more; except when the dreariest days bring to pass an irresistibly bleak outlook, the part of the angel’s message that follows “fear not” offers absolute assurance.
My wall is small – only about six feet on a side – but there is no limit to how much it can hold.