The fourth day of Christmas looked gray and cold through the window above Granddad’s sink. Looking across the driveway, I saw the field where we used to pick up potatoes. Beyond those fallow rows is another field, where tomatoes flourished not so long ago, and squash, and butterbeans, and next to it a wild bramble of blackberries, still yielding luscious fruit in its season.
Between those two fields is a road marked with our family’s surname, marking the way to the homeplace. The story of that name, and its presence here, is complicated. Because we come from settler people, it is not always complimentary. I know that signs are a way of marking territory, of making ownership claims. But that is not the only way to read them, and so through the kitchen window, I read this green street sign as a reminder that we belong to this land. It has a complex claim on us, in ways we still have not unearthed. In the soil are buried stories waiting to be tilled, longing to be uncovered. The slope of the land calls us down into the ground, into depths yet unplumbed. Under the surface awaits a terrifying journey of love, of loss, of relationships not yet reconciled, and ones that can never be reconciled.
For 65 years, someone has stood at this sink nearly every day to wash dishes. This day was my turn once more, the memories of souls departed passing through my hands as I cleaned and rinsed the bowls, the same bowl washed here for 65 years. When it was the soup pot’s turn to wade into the waters, I laughed. The pot was showing its age. The bottom was crinkled, as though three generations of toddlers had drummed on it with ball-peen hammers. The metal was thin, like the pot was made by folding a sheet of tin foil on itself, as though decades of washings had worn the metal away. There is thrift, and then there is being cheap, and beyond that is this pot. I smiled looking at it, knowing who had cooked in it for years and years, and started scrubbing the sides, when Granddad shuffled by.
I held the pot up in front of him and laughed, grasping for a joke. He smiled back. He knew at once what I was saying. And before I could say anything, he chuckled that intimate laugh of love that happens between people for whom jokes do not need words, only glances. He winked and said, “It ain’t leaked yet.”
I laughed as I absorbed the lesson, my hands back in the sink of hot water. A gust of cold air blew a pile of leaves across the driveway, by the grapevine and through the little orchard. The leaves drew my eyes again to survey the terrain I long ago memorized. My hands were busy and my imagination occupied with other lessons learned on these gentle slopes, lessons taught by people I have loved, people who loved me, lessons that came up silently through the ground, into my body through my bare feet as they darted across the fields. This fecund, interesting place was still working on me.
And then the phone in my pocket buzzed. Twice.
The fourth day of the season of Christmas is known as the Feast of the Holy Innocents. On that day, Christians remember those innocents who lost their lives during the reign of a mad king who was obsessed with his own power and cared nothing for the lives of children or parents when he thought they might threaten his supremacy. The story hits a little close to home, in other words, and for months now the frenzy of life under Herod has taken over. And honestly, the buzzes and notifications and ringtones were already overwhelming even before the mad king showed up. Now it has gotten worse. The liturgy of my days has become two-dimensional: the answering of messages, the competition for retweets, the mindless scrolling while waiting for the rush of the next outrage.
The next outrage will be outrageous, of course. That is not in question. But the dishes keep getting dirty, for one, and my news feed will not wash them. And also, the liturgy that Christians celebrate is decidedly three-dimensional — bread eaten, wine shared, bodies dunked in water. Such liturgy requires careful, imaginative attention to the places and people who make claims on bodies and minds and lives.
“Every person becomes the image of the God they adore,” Thomas Merton wrote. Gazing through that window above the sink, I know that I need to care about the frenzy. It is neighbors — refugee neighbors, poor neighbors, strangers, unheard and despised neighbors — who will suffer with Herod on the throne. I know this, have seen this, which makes the chaos grabbing for my attention seems desperately important. But I suspect that at this point I have come to adore the frenzy.
The work of bringing good news to the poor and proclaiming release to the captives, which is the work Jesus is doing and has always been doing in the world, is slow, sustained work. If I am to join Jesus, it will have to be in slow and sustained ways, with careful attention and with deep imagination. Slow, quiet growth will make followers of the Way ready to act quickly in defense of the poor and vulnerable. The days are surely coming when quick action will be needed. Making room in homes, in land, in policies, and in common life will be done best by those who make room in their souls for the quiet, patient cultivation of the soul in the presence of God.