There is something right in reading about a place while physically in that place. I have been reading Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm this week, slowly and carefully, and I probably need to read it at least two more times to make any kind of sense of it. It’s almost too good, too satisfying, to read about a moth burning like a wick in the flame of a candle on an island in the Puget Sound, while I, too, can see its damp gray earth and bruised, bluish currents slamming and tiding and swirling.
I see evergreens pregnant with soft, white frozen mounds, bearing weight with matured strength: a posture that pairs well with wire rimmed glasses and calloused hands. They are not tired; they are anchored and permanent and timeless. I need this kind of permanence, but I usually feel more like I’m floating a few frustrating inches off of the ground. I cannot leave footprints or smudges or impressions.
My husband, a nearly six foot tall, reddish-brown bearded man, is someone you would feel safe, even be eager to, tell your secrets to. He is kind in a way that assures you that he would never be cruel, would never laugh at your insecurities. He has soft eyes and an infectious positivity and a patience that blesses and baffles me at the same time.
Being here with him in the winter is something new for both of us. He has been teaching my family African card games. He waits while I stand before rows of sketch books and colored pencils in an art store while helplessly-indecisive-me tries to decide what, if anything, to buy. He lets me grip his elbow through the sleeve of his jacket in one hand, my other hand shoved deep in the pocket of my own, while our eyes roam the coastline: ferry boat horns and seagull cries and waves falling on top of each other. It’s ordinary and extraordinary at the same time.
It’s mine, I think, as though sticking my own personal flag in the soggy greens and purplish browns. And then my hand clenches and pulls upward, the stake hardly protesting as it releases from the ground. I want to claim some part of this wildness, to identify with it. But of course it isn’t just mine. It’s yours, it’s God’s. It’s absurdity, this cycling through lifespans as life and death wrap their arms around each other, as Creation begins and endures and falls asleep, over and over again. We are participants in it all. Sometimes it makes me dizzy with wonder and gratitude, and sometimes it makes me just want to hide in fear.
I absolutely love how Dillard writes about the ordinariness and holiness of buying communion wine (It’s worth the long read, I promise!):
How can I buy the communion wine? Who am I to buy the communion wine? Someone has to buy the communion wine. Having wine instead of grape juice was my idea, and of course I offered to buy it. Shouldn’t I be wearing robes and, especially, a mask? Shouldn’t I make the communion wine? Are there holy grapes, is there holy ground, is anything here holy? There are no holy grapes, there is no holy ground, nor is there anyone but us. I have an empty knapsack over my parka’s shoulders; it is cold, and I’ll want my hands in my pockets … And I’m out on the road again walking, my right hand forgetting my left. I’m out on the road again walking, and toting a backload of God.
Here is a bottle of wine with a label, Christ with a cork. I bear holiness splintered into a vessel, very God of very God, the sempiternal silence personal and brooding, bright on the back of my ribs. I start up the hill.
The world is changing. The landscape begins to respond as a current upwells. It is starting to clark with itself, though nothing moves in space and there’s no wind. It is starting to utter its infinite particulars, each overlapping and lone, like a hundred hills of hounds all giving tongue. The hedgerows are blackberry brambles, white snowberries, red rose hips, gaunt and clattering broom. Their leafless stems are starting to live visibly deep in their centers, as hidden as banked fires live, and as clearly as recognition, mute, shines forth from eyes. Above me the mountains are raw nerves, sensible and exultant; the trees, the grass, and the asphalt below me are living petals of mind, each sharp and invisible, held in a greeting or glance full perfectly formed. There is something stretched or jostling about the sky which, when I study it, vanishes. Why are there all these apples in the world, and why so wet and transparent? Through all my clothing, though the pack on my back and through the bottle’s glass I feel the wine. Walking faster and faster, weightless, I feel the wine. It sheds light in slats through my rib cage, and fills the buttressed vaults of my ribs with light pooled and buoyant. I am moth; I am light. I am prayer and I can hardly see.
I’m so stuck on this idea that I can’t really write about anything else. Who are any of us to do the things we do? The ordinary is holy. There really is no one else but us. Improvised stepping to a rhythm beneath the visible. What Frederick Buechner calls holy ground. Wild, special ordinariness.