The days are darker by now. The crimsons and yellows and the “fiery” leaves, as Audrey likes to call them, gave way to the darker jewel-toned colors, and then those faded, and left their neutral shades of brown on the ground. The branches are almost bare now. There are just the flecks of yellow here and there.
There is much darkness in the world also. There is heartbreak and fear, and it feels like there are fewer words too. Words gave way to pure symbols last Friday night. A black and white drawing where one could see the brush strokes. Pure color- blue, white, and red. And moments of silence. Who are we to offer paltry words in the face of such darkness?
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still,”
wrote T.S. Eliot. And yet, he wrote those words.
And likewise, I do find some solace, some direction for these dimming November days in Buechner, Flannery, and Lamott to name a few. I take their words like vitamins and minerals and on some days they sustain me.
“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid,” writes Buechner. I am often afraid – when I read the news each morning, when I see my daughter’s school on my phone caller ID, or when I hear a noise in the darkened house late at night. My startle reflex is strong. But the beautiful things have equal weight. I pick up two bouquets of flowers instead of one on the rainy, grey days. I play my music louder while I’m driving and watch the last leaves sailing down from the sky as if in time with the song on my car radio. It is almost too much glory to take in, the beautiful. Perhaps that’s why we busy ourselves and miss it altogether.
I am often losing faith- when my daughter asks me questions that I don’t know the answers to. “Why would God let me lose Susie Sunday (a Shopkin toy she lost at school) if he wants me to be happy? Why would He allow bad things if He knows everything?” Or when she asks me why God let her dad die. “You are asking a very tough question that has been asked by thousands for thousands of years,” I tell her as I sit be her bedside tucking her in one night. “I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened…It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God,” wrote Flannery O’Connor, whose letters have nourished me when nothing else could. So, I keep wanting and asking. On most days, that is enough. Just as MacDonald said trying to be brave is bravery, that wanting and asking is also genuine faith. “I believe; help my unbelief,” said the father who brought his son for healing in the book of Mark- such a statement of contradiction and truth.
I am often starved for sunlight. In the last few weeks there have been strings of very grey days. Anne Lamott wrote these words after last week’s horrifying events: “So where do we find grace and light? If you mean right now, the answer is Nowhere. It’s like after a child dies. Grace always does bat last, and the light always overcomes the darkness–always, historically. But not necessarily later the same day, or tomorrow, after lunch. Wendell Berry told me 25 years ago, in Advent, the darkest shortest days of winter, “It gets darker and darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.” But it is only November 13! It gets even darker.” I am glad of Advent- translated literally: “coming.” I am glad that just as the dreariness of November and the coming cold season threatens to overwhelm me, I will get to light candles. The contrast between the darkness and the light is pregnant with expectation and with hope.
Self-care seems to be a very popular topic online lately, and a while ago, a downloadable PDF called, “Everything Is Awful and I’m Not Okay: questions to ask before giving up,” was in high circulation. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a nice little guide for days when you are losing heart. But it reminded me of something else that was written long before this guide- and written for children no less. For who has had more to fear and more of a reason to give up than poor Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web? The smoke house is in view of his happy little barn. He is a spring pig who’s been told he won’t live to see another spring. He is heading towards the cold season – the one that spring pigs do not survive. He is heading towards winter. He himself will provide the Christmas dinner. But thankfully, Charlotte utters these beautiful words to him; this past summer I turned down the corner of the page of my daughter’s library book after she read these lines,.and they are the final words I will share here today:
Well,” replied Charlotte, “you must try to build yourself up. I want you to get plenty of sleep, and stop worrying. Never hurry and never worry! Chew your food thoroughly and eat every bit of it, except you must leave just enough for Templeton. Gain weight and stay well- that’s the way you can help. Keep fit, and don’t lose your nerve.”
It may sound cliche, but to persevere, to not lose heart- we need friends. Wilbur relies on his closest friend to come up with the plan for his very salvation. And in the meantime, he finds comfort in being with his friends in the cheerful barn. Last year I read about how the Scandinavians, who deal with all day darkness, combat winter sadness. The Danes call it hygge, and the Norwegians call it koselig. There’s no direct translation of these words into English, but the closest one can come is a “sense of coziness.” One article describes it this way: “It’s like the best parts of Christmas, without all the stress. People light candles, light fires, drink warm beverages, and sit under fuzzy blankets. There’s a community aspect to it too; …plenty of festivals and community activities creating the sense that everyone was in it together.” The darker, colder seasons are not the time to isolate.
But Charlotte also takes Wilbur back to the very basics- sleeping, keeping his stress level low, slowing down, and chewing his food well. E.B. White came up with all of this before it was trendy to be mindful, before the simplicity movements of today. These are the true basics, and yet, we need a reminder. When my husband was alive, I’d often complain that I was tired or had a headache. “Did you drink enough water?” he’d always ask, bringing me a glass. Drink plenty of water, try not to stress out so much, and for God’s sake, get a decent amount of sleep. Nothing will make the world seem darker than trying to do this on a couple of hours of sleep.
Though she wants him to eat well, Charlotte also tells Wilbur to leave enough food for the rat, Templeton, that lives in the barn. Now, it’s possible she wanted to get Templeton on their side because she knew she would later need his help in finding new words for her web, but the truth remains: the best way to get your mind off of your own despair, is to do something kind for someone else- no matter how small.
But my favorite line of her short soliloquy is the last one, “and don’t lose your nerve.” It needs no explanation. Trying to be brave- can be brave.
Charlotte’s prescription is powerful. It works because Wilbur trusts her. His compliance as winter draws near is a rest and a surrender- not an act of striving, not the frenzied state he had been in when he first learned of his fate. Wilbur does get to another spring. And even though Charlotte- his friend and protector dies, Wilbur himself becomes protector of her unborn baby spiders- the protector of new life. It turns out that when we’re afraid, or lack faith, or are desperate for light, it’s the perfect scenario for grace, unassuming and sometimes quiet, to enter in. And it turns out that the light is particularly beautiful in the colder Scandinavian countries- more colorful and softer- like the light in the sunrise or sunset. And it turns out that words, even words as seemingly unsophisticated as “some pig” – the first words Charlotte stitches into her web, no matter how paltry- can and do, in many ways, save us, or at the very least, help us to not lose heart.