As I recounted the conversation to him at dinner last night, I suddenly recalled a poem I wrote in my journal 22 years ago while sitting on a slab of stone on the east side of the Romanesque abbey church in the village of Vezelay in central France.
I was about a quarter of the way through my first trip to Europe with my college roommate Alison Arthur and a dozen other students. When I wrote the poem, Al and I had already lived through a long night of some drunken Germans trying to unzip our small tent at a campground in Worms (Gehen Sie aus, bitte!!!) but we had yet to find ourselves walking around Geneva late in the evening before realizing that no one in our party remembered the name of our guesthouse or the street that it was on. That was a long and funny night, though it was less so at the time.
During the first four weeks of our trip, we studied Reformation History. In Worms, along the Rhine, we visited the church where Martin Luther stood taking heat before the Diet after nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Door. It was there he uttered his famous line, “Here I stand; I can do no other.” A week later at the back of Vezelay’s magnificent abbey church, I was still thinking about Martin Luther’s moxie and verve and feeling blue that I didn’t appear to be made of the same stuff. I was going on 21 and wanted to believe I had something going on in my life but suspected that I was too lazy and happy to ever make anything happen for myself. Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but my poem of that hour now seems awfully prescient about what was to become my way of life.
Here I Sit
I could choose a quiet life
filled with easy dinners, screws, and songs
I could take my rightful share
of what I fully know I don’t deserve
and perform a subtle duty
I could be a dying sacrifice
not so clean but not yet dead
I could own a dog and we could run though fields
and have a perfect time
my dog and I
here I sit
without a hope for lack of wanting one
here I sit
until I will no longer bear
the Quiet’s gentle roar
I’ve always been very fond of the knowingness of that poem. The I-see-through-you-ness of it. I still like it but now, more than two decades hence, find I have little patience for whining angst of it. Here I sit, wanting to kick my own little 20 year-old butt.
Here I sit. I’m still sitting at my computer desk with dishes to do and children to yell at for jumping off my bed upstairs. I can hear them.
Upstairs in his office Scott is doing the saintly thing by crafting a video from a lot of raw digital footage we shot two years ago at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Palmyra, Maine. He’s doing it so that I can show it tomorrow after the funeral of St. Martin’s wonderful, inimitable priest, Janet McAuley, who died last Sunday. The previous Sunday she preached and celebrated the Eucharist. The day before that she sent me a note about my essay “The End of Something.” It read, short and sweet, “All Americans should be required to read The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire, love, Janet+”
She always signed her notes with “love” even if it was to write a quick line to chastise me for forgetting to put a notice in a newsletter about an event she was hosting.
Or “I think you’re completely wrong on that point,” she might write. “Love, Janet.”
Here I sit. Uninspired.
But it’s becoming harder to write that as I spend my life around people like Janet and some other recently departed saints who come to mind: holy people who stood tall among us for kindness and justice, love and faith, humor and a minimum tolerance for bullshit.
When I wrote the poem, I don’t think I could have imagined exactly what the “quiet’s gentle roar” was or what form it might take in my life. I knew only that there would always be a force somewhere near at hand ready to shake me from complacency whenever I chose to open my ears. In 1983 I couldn’t imagine a name for it, but now I know and dang if it isn’t Janet.
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