I tried for 10 minutes to pick a title for this blog post, but struggled to find the right words. I wanted to write about how in my minute-to-minute “normal” life, I am mostly doing fine—even good I might say. I am working and running and enjoying both. I am eating good food and taking walks around my colorful, leaf-carpeted town. I am making a list of fun things I could do in the months ahead.
But then I read the news that Ohio reported a single-day record of cases. But then I RSVP ‘no’ to a dear friend’s wedding. But then, on two hands, I count the months since I last saw my grandma. I read articles warning of civil war, news reports about another shooting, Facebook posts about a loved one’s death and how there will not be a funeral.
I look forward to new episodes of The Crown, then read a scathing reflection from a UK citizen on their opinion of the US. I drop my ballot off at the Board of Elections, then roll my eyes at the Instagram posts that insist that “no matter who wins the election, Jesus is on the throne.” I send a hilarious meme to a friend, then email them a poem about heartbreak.
I am an optimist one hour, a pessimist another. I have faith and am fearful, I am inspired and cynical, hopeful and heartbroken. I am all over the place.
How do you pick a title to summarize a blog post about all of that?
Last week, I finished a novel called Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. The book’s final chapter tells a story that I cannot stop thinking about. The passage moved me to tears. The story it tells does not have unfamiliar elements, but this time around, it struck me differently. Is it because I’m having to relearn what being a person faith really means? Is it because I have found myself, too, walking through a peaceful wood–one moment free, the next moment…not? Is it because we sometimes need books to remind us that the stories we heard as kids weren’t all made up?
The story of the Man in the Well is a story of light in a dark place. It has and is and will continue to stick with me in a time when light and dark mingle together each day. I don’t really have a neat, concise way to end this post, just as I didn’t have one to start it out, either.
I’ll let Berry’s words speak for themselves: a story he (re)tells of darkness and light, despair and hope, of being lost and being found. I hope they’ll comfort you, too, in this strange age of being fine and being terrible—of being a person in 2020.
“But faith is not necessarily, or not soon, a resting place. Faith puts you out on a wide river in a boat, in the fog, in the dark. Even a man of faith knows that (as Burley Coulter used to say) we’ve all got to go through enough to kill us.”
The now wooded, or rewooded, slopes and hollows hereabouts are strewn with abandoned homesteads, the remains of another kind of world. Most of them by now have no buildings left. Everything about them that would rot has rotted. What you find now in those places when you come upon them are the things that were built of stone: foundations, cellars, chimneys, wells. Sometimes the wells are deep, dug to the bedrock and beyond, and walled with rock laid up without mortar. Virtually every rock in a structure like that, if it is built right, is a keystone; it can’t move in or out. Those walls, laid underground where there is no freezing and thawing, will last, I guess, almost forever.
Sometimes the well is the only structure remaining, and there will be no visible sign of it. It will be covered with old boards in some stage of decay, green with moss or covered with leaves. It is a perfect trap, and now and then you find rabbits and groundhogs have blundered in and drowned. A man too could blunder into one.
Imagine a hunter, somebody from a city some distance away, who has a job he doesn’t like, and who has come alone out into the country to hunt on a Saturday. It is a beautiful, perfect fall day, and the Man feels free. He has left all his constraints and worries and fears behind. Nobody knows where he is. Anybody who wanted to complain or accuse or collect a debt could not find him. The morning that started frosty has grown warm. The sky seems to give its luster to everything in the world. The Man feels strong and fine. His gun lies ready in the crook of his arm, though he really doesn’t care whether he finds game or not. He has a sandwich and a candy bar in his coat pocket. And then, not looking where he is going, which is easy enough on such a day, he steps onto the rotten boards that cover one of those old wells, and down he goes.
He disappears suddenly out of the lighted world. He falls so quickly that he doesn’t have time even to ask what is happening. He hits water, goes under, comes up, swims, or clings to the wall, inserting his fingers between the rocks. And now, I think, you cannot help imagining the way it would be with him. He looks up and sees how far down he has come. The sky that was so large and reassuring only seconds ago is now just a small blue picture of itself, far away. His first thought is that he is alone, that nobody knows where he is; these two great pleasures that were his freedom have now become his prison, perhaps his tomb. He calls out (for might not somebody chance to be nearby, just as he chanced to fall into the well?) and he hears himself enclosed within the sound of his own calling voice.
How does the story end? Does he save himself? Is he athletic enough, maybe, to get his boots off and climb out, clawing with his fingers and toes into the grudging holds between the rocks of the wall? Does he climb up and fall back? Does somebody, in fact, for a wonder, chance to pass nearby and hear him? Does he despair, give up, and drown? Does he, despairing, pray finally the first true prayer of his life?
Listen. There is a light that includes our darkness, a day that shines down even on the clouds. A man of faith believes that the Man in the Well is not lost. He does not believe easily or without pain, but he believes it. His belief is a kind of knowledge beyond any way of knowing. He believes that the child in the womb is not lost, nor is the man whose work has come to nothing, nor is the old woman forsaken in a nursing home in California. He believes that those who make their bed in Hell are not lost, or those who dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, or the lame man at Bethesda Pool, or Lazarus in the grave, or those who pray, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.’