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“I Wake Close to Morning” by Mary Oliver


“Why do people keep asking to see

God’s identity papers

when the darkness opening into morning

is more than enough?

Certainly any god might turn away in disgust.

Think of Sheba approaching

the kingdom of Solomon.

Do you think she had to ask,

“Is this the place?”


Oliver also wrote, “I don’t want to be demure or respectable. / I was that way, asleep, for many years. / That way, you forget too many important things. / How the little stones, even if you can’t hear them, / are singing.”


 

We head East and my man gets a dreamy look. I have seen it every drive home, from our first visit to our last. The look of shrugging on an old flannel, pushing back the seat, grabbing a ball cap.


He promises me the trees are prettier here. “They don’t look like this in Cincinnati,” he says, shakes his head. When the trees along the shoulder stop short and a panoramic vista opens wide, he points, “look.” He means the standing cows and the green grass and the green trees. The sky like a quiet pond. He points out the exit to his Pap’s farm every time we pass it. He knows the grown grasses in the first and second fields of that land are waving. He notes his old elementary school as we cross the state bridge, always anxious I should see it.


Time is not the same everywhere. It does not feel the same or treat us the same in all places. Some places time is slow, like the tide, taking tiny bites out of rock so that it hardly notices until it is smooth. Time is like that in Wheeling, West Virginia.


Cody says the land is theorized to be an outlier of the Scottish Highlands, back when the world was one big continent – Pangea. The hills and rocks have weathered down over time. Mountains have become mounds; the valleys still dip low. The land is wild, same way a stallion is still fierce with a bridle. People sit houses over every peak and ravine and the land bucks at them relentlessly. Abandoned foundations crack in Tetris chunks, portions sliding down the hill while the rest keeps a lop-sided claim on more even sod. And the trees. Lush, thick as fleece. You know a taste of the Scottish Isles in that depth, the way jaunty stone chins jut out proudly over the highways and byways. The way industry makes a home on the water.


Glance sideways and an industrial plant comes into view; glance anyway, someway, and a mill lies along the ground with rusted spines and smoking stacks. No place more than at the bank of the Ohio River. The spider-legged trusses of a rusted brown bridge spread across the water like a Strider, its last appendage, connecting the road to Ohio, long ago severed. From the highway, the startling drop-off hangs high in the sky: a lonely bridge leading to Nowhere. In the night, a warm glow rests its chin over the black hills East of the water. It is hot and muffled, like a sunrise, except it can only be seen in the evening, where the long fire of an industrial plant burns the midnight oil.


There was a steel mill here some time ago. It went down when the higher-ups sold the jobs to China. How many people lost jobs? But now fracking has its deep wells in peoples’ private property, sending them checks in the mail for their families. And the bright blue waterslide of a coal shoot still bends over the side of the West Virginia riverbank, keeping people’s lamps lit.


Many unkind things have happened here. Happen still.


I am no West Virginian and do not know much about these things, only brushing shoulders with stories. What I do know is that no matter the season, warm round lights hang above the coal mill like strings of Christmas lights, reflecting off the black water. The old bridges look strong over the river; they are imbued with dignity, standing, still standing, after Time has tried her hand at sweeping out their feet. Much like the people who live here.


The stones lining the river floor are singing. Have been for some time. Loud as ever belting songs, though not all can hear them. The open sky shouts praise. Trees make harmony. Rocks a chorus of jubilance, stomping their feet. A holy Fingerprint lingers on.


What a land, what a land, my husband’s West Virginia. And also, what a song.




When I write, I have the propensity to dither a long time over what to say and how to say it. This is mostly for your benefit, dear reader, but it is also a kind of protection for myself. What I want to do, if I can notice where my own two feet are standing more often, is write of the ordinary in-between moments that slip past me while I am wiping globs of dried banana off the floor and kissing sweet baby cheeks. These moments feel very menial in the present but in reflection are the substance of what it is I am doing with my life. Perhaps that is not very interesting of late. I am home ninety percent of the time and traveling between friends and the grocery store the other ten. But, I am realizing, I have a lingering grief that I have settled into rhythm with, like my friend Dickinson’s Death, rumbling alongside her in a carriage. It isn’t disconcerting. In fact I do feel like that old Death has really come to me “kindly,” and “because I could not stop for Death” in the first place.


Cody and I just finished watching the Lord of the Rings series. It drove me to the books, because I knew Tolkien would say things better. There is a scene at the tail end of The Return of the King, after Sam realizes that Frodo is taking him on one last journey before sailing with the Elves across the sea. Tolkien writes, “But Sam was sorrowful at heart, and it seemed to him that if the parting would be bitter, more grievous still would be the long road home alone.” What Sam doesn’t realize, and finds out only moments later, is that Gandalf has foreseen this intimate sorrow. Soon after Gandalf joins the party of travelers, Pippin and Merry arrive. Gandalf tells the loyal Sam, “it will be better to ride back three together than one alone.”


--


“Grief isn’t linear” is one of those completely true clichés. I see it everywhere now, in the same way you see a million Chrysler Towne and Counties passing you on the highway after you buy one. I’ve somehow been surprised that this saying is true. This is because you get to a certain point in your grief and you think, not that you’ve moved on, but that you’re okay now. You are most of the time, so this seems plausible. You have his picture on the fridge; you catch his eye while turning around, and you don’t cry. You don’t even feel like crying. You feel a little flat but you feel okay. But then you think of him another day and you just feel totally sure that he is still in Florida, in his room, saying something sarcastic and witty to his friends on his headset. For a millisecond you’re living in a parallel universe. And then there’s this tiny shock of grief again. Like slipping into sleep and being jolted awake. Your throat gets thick and your nose refuses to allow you to breathe and, totally without your permission, you are crying.


My first Sunday back to church after my cousin died, the guitar was pumping and the drums were beating and the lyrics were “death has been defeated.” I felt insulted. Not an angry kind of insulted, either at God or man, but the kind of insulted that has witnessed a car crash only to be told, “well actually you didn’t.” I had just seen the whisper of my cousin’s body lying foreign on his bed, a stranger to his own family as soon as a long breath carried him away.


Death will be defeated. Though it will be the very last enemy to be defeated, it will itself be destroyed. This is truth just the perfect size for my grief. It is God acknowledging the wreckage and saying to the stunned woman who saw it, “sit in the car for a while, and warm yourself. I’ll take care of the rest.”


I get daily quotes from Plough, and this was today’s fitting word from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:


“Celebrating Advent means learning how to wait.… Not all can wait – certainly not those who are satisfied, contented, and feel that they live in the best of all possible worlds! Those who learn to wait are uneasy about their way of life, but yet have seen a vision of greatness in the world of the future and are patiently expecting its fulfillment. The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come. For these, it is enough to wait in humble fear until the Holy One himself comes down to us, God in the child in the manger.”


And of course, God, the conquering King Jesus. Those of us who grieve are blessed with expectation. And also, which we may take delight in, we are those who will be comforted.





In college, I had a conversation with a Mormon woman. We discussed God and the Bible, weaving different ideologies for one another to look over, hers’ based on Mormonism and mine from Protestantism. As we dove in, she told me that Mormons do not believe the Bible to be inerrant.


“For example,” she said, “the Bible says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Why would He do that?”


In that moment, I wondered, too. Why make that kind of trouble?


There’s a famous moment in Exodus when the Israelites are drawn up against the Red Sea. In movies, or storybooks, we might see the people running straight to the sea from their captivity, when Pharaoh thrusts them out with a pointed finger, his iron-clad will broken, doubled over the still figure of his firstborn. But after the people are released, having completed the inaugural Passover, they first travel to Succoth, and then move on to camp at Etham (Exodus 12:37, 13:20). From there, the LORD has the people go back the way they’d come, to Pi-hahiroth, which is by the Red Sea (14:1-2). The LORD tells Moses,


“For Pharaoh will say of the people of Israel, ‘They are wandering in the land; the wilderness has shut them in.’ And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD” (14:3-4).


This means that the Israelites were backed up against the sea almost conspiratorially. It was intended. God boxed His people in, and not Pharaoh. He explains His rationale for this, saying that He wouldn’t take His people straight into the land of the Philistines, because they’d be put off by war and run back to Egypt (13:17). So He takes them to the sea. There, they are hemmed in by the water’s line. The Egyptians are approaching, at first a fuzzy black line cresting a sandy plane; then small, individual forms, tiny glinting swords and helmets, speeding chariots; a wave of war-cry rushes over them like a sonic boom in front of the fray; their chests feel the feet of the warriors crushing over the distance between them; finally, the band is close enough for the people to see spraying froth from the mouths of racing horses.


The Israelites almost die from fear. I imagine them screaming and struggling to breathe through panic attacks, heads swiveling around as they look for an escape. They are screaming at Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” Mothers hold their children in vise-grips. They see their firstborns, alive, by a miracle, about to be slaughtered. “What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt?” Helpless eyes look to their parents. Babies wail at the breasts of their wailing mothers. “Is this not what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”


Moses is assuring the people, screaming above the noise: “Fear not! Stand firm! See the salvation of the LORD! He will fight for you! You need only be silent!”


And then, like a heavy fog, the angel of God moves the pillar of cloud between the Egyptians and the Israelites, obstructing their view of one another. No one could cross the divide. And then God sent a powerful wind to form in the sea a hallway, lined with watery walls. In the morning, the Israelites are saved, and the Egyptians are washed away.


That was a moment all unto itself, but it was meant for people forever, to look back on and be amazed. To know that God is almighty. To know that God might bring us to trouble on purpose. To know, amid the frenzied fear of it, that salvation is coming like a welcome wind, and that, heaven help us, we should know that salvation comes from One hand alone.


I keep thinking, uncertain, “brought to trouble on purpose?” Not an unnatural thought – or an original one. Didn’t the disciples chastise Jesus when He spoke of His death? “Brought to trouble on purpose?”


But yes, of course; how else could it be for such a stubborn people? Brough to trouble on purpose, and saved on purpose, too.



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