Monday, October 8, 2007

A Reading from the Big Book

Tuesday afternoon I take a taxi from a hotel in Columbus, Ohio, to the airport and suddenly, after being surrounded by thousands of Episcopalians for eight days, I am back in the world. Standing behind me in the security line is an otherwise conventional-looking young woman with tattooed arms, shoulder to wrist. Behind her a loud talker is going over the details of a loan closing. A disproportionate number of people with Ohio State stamped somewhere on their person mill around our slow-moving line.

While waiting at the gate, I talk with a group of teenagers, boys and girls, who tell me that they are on their way to Ft. Franklin in North Carolina for basic training. They’re so polite and earnest, so baby-faced and excited that my throat closes up when their flight is called. I can’t help picturing them dead.

Amazingly no one stops to inquire if I have heard how Resolution A161 is faring on the floor of the House of Deputies or who has blogged what about whom.

I am glad to be out of the bubble of the Episcopal Church’s 75th General Convention, where my role had been to do a soft segment for the nightly news program and to cover the convention for the Diocese of Maine. It hadn’t been a great week for reasons that mostly rest with me. One evening I had meant to send a hyperbolic email to a buddy with whom I have exchanged a good deal of gossip and woe over the years. It’s our way. But then, in those wee hours, mistakenly and sloppily, I sent it to about 100 colleagues most of whom I would inevitably bump into by nine the following morning. Most were sympathetic and offered a hug or arm pat of the “but for the grace of God go we all” variety, some were gracious enough to pretend it didn’t happen, but I know others were hurt by an act that strained the bonds of our affection. And that I deeply regret.

Here’s another downer: A number of people, most of whom I don’t know well or at all, said to me variously but essentially: “I don’t care what other people say, I think you’re great.”

Gee, um, thanks.

So I decide to suck up the airline change fees and return home a day early. My work is either finished or can be done from Maine. At some point on the way home, somewhere between Columbus and Philadelphia, I decide to quit being an Episcopalian. In the Philadelphia airport, while waiting for my flight to Portland, I call my friend David in Miami to break the news. He’s seminary-trained and cares about these things, and he doesn’t believe a word of it.

On the plane I open my book, John le Carre’s The Constant Gardener, to discover a photo that I stashed in as a bookmark in my hurry to pack the previous week. It’s a photo of the Rev. Janet McAuley, whom, to me and many others, stood tall as someone who knew what was important and had no problem telling you. Her ministry objective was “love affair with God, each other, and all creation.” I’ve kept her photo tucked into my bureau mirror since her death in January 2005 where, each morning, I look at it and its neighbor, a faded, knock-off icon I bought from a silent monk at the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev.

Within a few pages I read this sentence: “’Better to be inside the system and fighting it,’ her father – an iconoclast in other ways – would say, ‘than outside the system, howling at it.’”

Good God, God, I think, can’t you leave me alone for one goddamn minute.

I arrive in Portland to discover that the retribution for my defection is to prevent my suitcase from making the trip. As a significantly myopic person, that is especially inconvenient news because I had packed my only pair of glasses. I will rise in the morning blind until I bumble into a new pair of contacts.

At midnight I enter the house to discover that the dishes are mostly done and there are no real household disasters. I mosey around, read the court reports in last week’s local newspaper for names I recognize, peruse my sons’ newly arrived report cards and flip through the rest of the mail. I try to refrain from turning on the computer to check the evening’s news from Columbus but fail.

Later, as I gently pull back the covers, Scott rolls on his side, his head on his arm. He says, sleepily but sweetly and rather surprisedly, “Hoozlow, it’s you.”

I wake to an empty bed and a familiar muted version of NPR’s Morning Edition seeping under the bathroom door. My sons are still asleep. It is bright and warm and I reach for my glasses to check the digital thermometer by the window, the one that Marty gave Scott for Christmas. No glasses. Ah, yes. No suitcase. No toothbrush.

After awhile Marty crawls into bed with me. We talk and joke and catch up on our week apart. He offers the scoop on everything. Colin brushed his teeth twice. I nod at this. Colin comes in and deigns to be kissed and fussed over for a few minutes before getting ready for a day at Pemaquid Beach with a friend.

“How about hiking Maiden’s Cliff?” I ask Marty when we are alone after breakfast. He’s flopped on the sunporch couch, playing handheld solitaire and listening to a Harry Potter book on tape for the 23rd time. He’s hiked this two mile climb with his summer camp a number of times and has been pestering me to do it with him.

“Sure,” he says, all 12 year-old nonchalance but I know he’s thrilled. He wants to show me something he cares about, just the two of us. It’s a luxury rarely afforded a twin.

We drive to Camden and park at the trailhead. I carry the backpack as I’ve always done because I’ve always been the strongest. He whips up the trail ahead of me, talking a mile a minute over his shoulder about past forays to the top. This is my first hike of the year and immediately I feel weak and old. I haven’t been eating or sleeping well for the past week and it shows. Marty waits for me next to a big rock, tapping his Teva on the dry leaves of the path. “I’m coming, man,” I say, trying not to betray my hard breathing.

Another quarter mile up the trail he turns around and calls, “Hey, Katz. Don’t chuck the supplies.” He’s referring to Bill Bryson’s out of shape hiking partner, Stephen Katz, from A Walk in the Woods. Katz was known to throw heavy water bottles and tins of Spam into the woods to lighten his load as they walked the Appalachian Trail. We like Katz. Marty smirks and bounds on ahead of me. I call to him to wait up then tell him to carry the backpack if he’s so energetic.

The woods are quiet and there’s a lovely stream trickling down a ravine beside the trail. This is nothing like the Columbus Convention Center. Without the pack I’m happier or perhaps I’m catching my stride. We climb in quiet with Marty leading the way. “We’re almost at the top. Don’t look over the edge and spoil the view until we reach the summit,” he commands.

“Is that what your camp counselors tell you?”

“No, but that’s what I’ll tell campers when I’m a counselor,” he says, turning back to me. “Otherwise you ruin the effect.”

The summit is grand. We’re high above Lake Megunticook and beyond is Camden Harbor with open ocean peeking between the hills. It’s a glorious day but suddenly it occurs to me how red-faced and hot and sweaty I am. I open my bottle and squirt it along my brow and rub my face with the cool water. Salt drips into my mouth. I lift my hand behind my head and squeeze hard to send a stream of water along the back of my neck. It pours down between my shirt and sticky skin. I feel well and happy and refreshed. Martin is closer to the edge than I would ordinarily care to see him, but I see that this is the summer I can trust my fine, long-haired boy.

He shows me the cross and the monument dedicated to young Elenora French, who, while on a Maying trek with other maidens in 1864, tumbled to her death while trying to catch her wind-blown hat.

“Bummer,” Marty says, after allowing me time to read the stone marker.

“Yeah, really,” I say. Then something draws my gaze upward to a hawk gracefully circling the higher reaches of a neighboring peak.

On the way down, Marty leads by 50 feet and we walk along without talking. I think of how much better I feel now that I’m here in these airy woods, the blue sky above my head.

I think of how Philip Newell, in his small treasure about Celtic Christianity Listening for the Heartbeat of God, cites the ninth-century theologian, John Scotus Eriugena. He writes, “he taught us that we can look to creation just as we look to the Scriptures to receive the living Word of God.” Eriugena called Scripture the “little book” and creation the “big book,” which by reading we can divine the grace of God that surrounds us.

I think of how good the water felt splashing on my hot face and pouring down my back and the sweet taste of sweat on my lips. I think of how hungry I am. I think of this winsome, changing boy walking before me, still bearing my burdensome pack. I think of how near-sighted I am and how grateful I should be for this enormous, world-sized book laid out before us all, its type as tall as trees.

Heidi Shott
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