Wednesday, November 04, 2009

For Ann (Or, They Are Weak, But He is Strong)...

Many of you know that one of the books I've read in the past few years that really resonated with my life is Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow. Recommended by my friend Josh, I knew it would probably be good, but I had not idea how much it would remain with me and linger in my thoughts. Maybe it was the quiet way Jayber lived his life. A bachelor, without a family to belong to, but somehow belonging to everyone in the community. Maybe it was the idealistic simplicity of a time gone by. For whatever reason, this work of literature captured my heart and read my life in ways few other books ever had.

Jayber was a barber, a gravedigger, and for many years a church janitor. He experienced the life of the church from a distance, but somehow felt existentially connected to it through his work taking care of the yard and cleaning the sanctuary. Over time, he belonged.

Jayber Crow has occupied my mind today, and this is why:

For me, there is something strangely holy about Saturday evenings. I can't explain it. As a child growing up in Chandler, and before I was old enough to drive, the only thing to do in that small town was to play with friends and walk home before it got too dark. This was, of course, a time when it was no big deal for eight year old children to walk across town without Child Protective Services getting involved.

As the day wore on, and it became clear that it was time to head home, I would walk. Occasionally I would take meandering paths to get home, walking away from my house before I walked back toward it. As dusk approached the autumn sky turned myriad shades of purple and gold. The sound of crickets was simultaneously deafening and relaxing. As I approached that little church building (which I have written about before,) I could hear the buzz of a lawn mower. As I walked down the hill, the one by the neighboring Methodist church that was fun to ride your bike down, I never doubted who would be walking behind the lawn mower. For as long as I can remember, Ann Crawley was our Jayber Crow.

Her children were both slightly older and slightly younger than me, so I don't have a wealth of stories to tell, and maybe that is good. We all need steady people at the periphery of our lives who can model for us how to live, but at a safe distance. Otherwise me may never know to look for the lessons these people have to offer.

She lived around the corner in my neighborhood and is one of those people who I can never remember not knowing. She taught Sunday School, brought food to our potluck dinners, and she mowed the lawn of our church. On those Saturday afternoons I would wave and she would wave back, and we never had to ask if we would see each other's face in church the next morning. We knew each other too well,the same way that all of us in that community knew each other-- in a way that afforded and accepted understatement.

Tonight she lies in hospice care with her family surrounding her. As of last night they removed all nutrition and are making things as comfortable as they can for her. I learned a few hours ago, from her daughter-in-law's facebook status, that one of her grandsons got to sing her the song that she no doubt sang to (and with) me and that rag-tag group of friends of mine many times-- Jesus Loves Me.

After years of mowing that church lawn and keeping it's pews dusted and clean, Jayber Crow finally belonged in the same way that Ann Crawley belongs. And the moment of his belonging went something like this...

One day when I went up [to the church] to work, sleepiness overcame me and I lay down on the floor behind the back pew to take a nap. Waking or sleeping (I couldn't tell which), I saw all the people gathered there who had ever been there. I saw them as I had seen them (from the back pew) on the Sunday before. I saw them in all the times past and to come, all somehow there in their own time and in all time and in no time: the cheerfully working and singing women, the men quiet or reluctant or shy, the weary, the troubled in spirit, the sick, the lame, the desperate, the dying, the little children tucked into the pews beside their elders, the young married couples full of visions, the old men with their dreams, the parents proud of their children, the grandparents with tears in their eyes, the pairs of young lovers attentive only to each other on the edge of the world, the grieving widows and widowers, the mothers and fathers of children newly dead, the proud, the humble, the attentive, the distracted–I saw them all. I saw the creases crisscrossed on the backs of the men’s necks, their work-thickened hands, the Sunday dresses faded with washing. They were just there. They said nothing, and I said nothing. I seemed to love them all with a love that was mine merely because it included me.

When I came to myself again, my face was wet with tears


Someday soon, all of our faces will be wet with tears. Tears for a life well lived. For years of faithful service, for performing the monotonous tasks with care and joy, and not just perfect attendance, but perfect presence as well.

2 comments:

Susie said...

Craig, this touched my heart. You have a gift. I'm proud to know you.

Melissa said...

This is what it's all about - thanks for writing this Craig.