At Brevity Magazine:
It may be the most beautiful word in the English language. It signifies something new but not unheard-of, the restoration of things forsaken, the turning of dark night to bright morning, the interruption of self-imposed restraint, the moment of ordinary grace in which a different order seems to break in: the order of gratuitous generosity, the order of unmerited gifts, the order of extravagant joy. It is a word we use all the time, maybe unthinkingly, but like those many other simple things which Our Lord hallowed by his use of them—bread, wine, water—the word has been dignified and elevated by Christ.
I mean, of course, the word “breakfast.”
It is an old word in English, dating from the 15th century, really the combination of two even older words. At breakfast, we break the night fast. At breakfast, we return.
After his resurrection, John the Evangelist tells us, Jesus appears on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and does something remarkable. This Jesus, who John is constantly describing in high language as the Word of God, the Way and the Truth, the Resurrection and the Life, does something quite concrete and un-kingly: he cooks breakfast for his friends.
In a story called “Babette’s Feast,” the Danish writer Isak Dinesen tells the story of Babette, a once-famous chef now in exile in Denmark, having fled revolution in Paris. She arrives at the home of two pious and austere Lutheran sisters, who agree to take her in despite the fact that they can offer her no wage. For fourteen years Babette serves as their cook until one day, news arrives that the lottery ticket—which she has had a friend in Paris renew each year—has finally come up big. She has won it all: 10,000 francs. The sisters are sure that they will lose Babette to Paris, and they will return to the meager and humble fare they were accustomed to before Babette arrived.
But Babette does not leave; instead she spends the entire sum of her winnings preparing for the two sisters and her community a lavish and extraordinary meal in the high French style: turtle soup and Blinis Demidoff, the finest Amontillado sherry and Veuve Cliquot 1860, and, the decadent coup-de-grace: cailles en sarcophage, quail stuffed with foie gras and black truffles, and served in a pastry with a sauce made of white wine and black figs.
The normally sedate and tight-lipped guests are scandalized by this outrageous and unconscionably expensive meal. This is not at all what they are used to. But slowly, they are overcome. They grow “lighter in weight and lighter in heart” the more they eat and drink, the more they realize that such extravagance has been spent on them. Their lips become loosened. They confess what scoundrels they have actually been to one another. They laugh at what fools they have been. “They realized,” Dinesen writes, “that the infinite grace of which [the General] had spoken had been allotted to them, and they did not even wonder at the fact, for it had been the fulfillment of an ever-present hope. The vain illusions of this earth had dissolved before their eyes like smoke, and they had seen the universe as it really is. They had been given one hour of the millennium.”
“The universe as it really is,” in Dinesen’s expression, is a universe of gifts. It takes a Babette to open our eyes to the joy to which we remain so obstinately blind. Who among you today has not known some glimmer of that experience, when you feasted from a truckload of oysters and a pitcher full of Bloody Marys on New Year’s Day at Susie’s house? Or when Susie spread a table for you at Thanksgiving, or, on an ordinary Monday, cooked you breakfast?
They were often legendary, Susie’s feasts, epic: and were there still epic poets around they might write long poems about them. I imagine each of you has a story of Susie that involves food in some way; she was our Babette, a master of hospitality, a queen of the Feast, and each one of hers was aromatic with the fragrance of her invincibly joyous personality, each a reflection of a woman who was never less than wholly alive.
Not even on the day when she was told that the doctors had decided not to do any further chemo. It was early November. We were all planning to be together at Callaway Gardens in a few weeks for Thanksgiving. Heartbroken, Mom wrote to us to tell us the ominous news. She passed on her sister’s words from that day. “Susie,” she wrote, “has some ideas about the turkey.”
At the high-noon of bad news, Susie was thinking about the feast to come.
But this is not the hour of the feast but of the fast—of the fast from the person whose company we will no longer enjoy in this world, from the wife, mother, grandmother, sister, cousin, aunt, friend, our Z, at whose table we will no longer sit. Today, we all come empty-handed to an empty table. We will feast together soon enough: after the service and someday, perhaps, we shall break that fast from one another and feast together with all the saints in the full presence of the living God.
But at this hour, we fast.
It is a time to fast from pious clichés, from sentimental and soothing platitudes, from false consolations, if for no other reason than that we might be prepared for the real grief and real consolation, for the hard truths with which death and resurrection confront us.
Christians are as guilty as anyone else—maybe more so—of a certain sentimentalizing of language around death. We might say, for example, that Susie has passed away, she has “gone to a better place,” she has “gone home.” It is understandable why we might wish to speak this way. Indeed, in the face of death, we grope for what metaphors we have, to express a mystery that is beyond words. But the language of Christian faith is different. It is not morbid to say—if it needs to be said at all—that Susie has died, and with her death some small part of each of us has died too.
Christian faith demands truthfulness, that we not mince words when it comes to death.
One reason it is important to be frank about death, even or especially in our language about it, is that to be dishonest about death is to be dishonest about life. One reason why earlier Christian cultures so elaborately ritualized death was because they took it so seriously. Some cultures—especially ones given to carnivals—still do make a big deal out of death, and sometimes doing so is a way of limiting its power over you, mocking its dominion. St Paul seems almost to taunt death in 1 Corinthians: “O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” John Donne’s famous sonnet shares in that sort of finger-pointing spirit: “Death be not proud,” he begins, and concludes, “Death, thou shalt die.”
I am not recommending a mocking attitude towards death; on the contrary, we owe to death a certain kind of respect—the sort of respect that we show in true grief and in sorrow, in mourning something lost that will not return. We have all genuinely lost someone we love this last week, and no amount of chest-thumping at death will change that. But love, the great songwriter Leonard Cohen reminds us, “is not a victory march; it’s a cold and a broken hallelujah.”
If I want to commend anything about the attitude of St Paul or John Donne, it is the fact that both of them address death directly. It is possible that they addressed death so directly because they did not believe it to be absolute. They address it as if it were a person. They do not use euphemisms for it.
Paul and Donne both believed in death; they did not question the severity of its hand. But they did have the courage to name it without fear. And I think the lesson for us is this: death cannot be defeated if it cannot be addressed face-to-face. We cannot claim not to fear death if we cannot speak its name. What is more, we cannot speak of resurrection if we do not honestly speak of death. In Christian thought, these go together, they constitute a unity of sorts. There is no Easter Sunday without Good Friday, no resurrection without crucifixion.
I said a moment ago that Christian faith demands truthfulness, that we not mince words when it comes to death.
Let me say the same thing, a different way.
Christian faith demands truthfulness, that we not mince words when it comes to resurrection.
What is this day is really about? It may be about binding up wounds, but some wounds never heal. Not even for the risen Jesus, who, when he appears to Thomas and the other disciples, still bears the wounds from his crucifixion. Your scars: you take them with you.
Today is about you all, all of Susie’s family, friends. Today is about your sorrow, your mourning, your grief—grief that will never completely end, not in this life.
Today is, of course, about her story—a long story that did not begin with her, but a chapter in a story longer than any human memory can encompass. That larger story—of which Susie remains a part—goes way, way back, all the way back to the beginning. Today is about the end of one part of that story, and also about the part of the story of Susie that does not die with her, but continues in each of you.
But what today is really about is Jesus. It is about resurrection. Christian faith in the risen Christ and resurrection of the body makes it possible for us to speak honestly and truthfully about death. Talk of resurrection is not cheap, easy comfort. It is real comfort, true hope. What it means is that Susie’s story, and yours and mine—have an end that we cannot see. We know that story’s opening line: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and “Let us make humankind in our image and likeness.” We do not know its end, but we do trust that we are all a part of that ongoing story of God’s love.
There is a lot that we do not know about death, about what happens to the human person after it. There is a lot about death about which we ought to remain silent. But we Christians do not believe that the soul of Susie has gone on to a city in the clouds. We do believe that her life is hid away with God in Christ. We do believe that “we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” We do not believe simply in the immortality of souls; we believe in the resurrection of the body.
The resurrection of the body that the Church confesses is not simply a future event. It is something for which we hope, for which we pray, yes. But it is also a present reality. Resurrection is not simply an exclamation point at the end of the sentence of life; it is a reality that we are called to participate in now. You were all born to be raised again, you were created in order to be resurrected, you were made for union with God.
Susie’s life, and yours, and mine, is the fruit of the unnecessary and free gift of a God who is extravagant, even prodigal, with his generosity. A gift of the gratuitous creativity of God who, for no profit of his own, sings the cosmos into being. And who, out of no desire for self-gain, offers himself to the world, reconciling us to himself while we were yet sinners.
This is the hard truth of resurrection. Hard truths are not always sour or bitter to the ear; sometimes they are difficult because they seem impossible. Because they contain a joy that we might be inclined to fear. We sometimes desperately want to believe that our sins, the collective madness and cruelty of our world all add up to something that it just too much for God; that at the end of the day, our sins count. But the hard truth of today is that they do not. The hard truth today is that our shortcomings, our despair today, are finite; but mercy is infinite.
Christian tradition teaches that God does not create us out of loneliness or because he needs us. This may sound like a hard truth: God does not need you. But beneath it is a truth maybe harder still: God called you into being simply because he desired that you exist. God sang each one of us—you, me, Susie—into being before the foundation of the world because, there is no better way to say it: God is love.
This God not only takes on human flesh; he cooks breakfast for his friends: the same friends who, days earlier, had abandoned him—and this same Peter, who had denied him three times a few days ago, now hilariously practically falling out of the boat while his more reasonable companions trail behind him in the boat.
As St Paul tells us, this world, our world, the world that we have so monumentally and ingeniously screwed up, is already reconciled to God, in Jesus Christ. As Jesus said to his disciples in the dark hour before he went to his own death, “Be of good cheer. For I have overcome the world.”
You may not feel particularly cheerful right now. I know many of you today are feeling wounded, broken, cracked. That is as it should be. Do not fear the cracks in you: it’s how the light gets in (L. Cohen).
Now is the time for mourning, but there will be a time when you can sing a clear, full-throated Alleluia, when your tears will dry and you will be able to breathe through your nose again, when your eyes will no longer burn red, when you can shout for joy with clear eyes and full confidence in a perfect pitch.
But that is not today. Today we celebrate the joy of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and our participation in it, this beautiful, fragile gift of being human—but we do so with a shaky voice, with reddened eyes, with heaving and sunken chests. The Scriptures remind us that our lives are to be hymns of praise to the Triune God, even in the face of death. It is true that in this life, the hymn to God that we are to become does not always resolve into a bright major chord. We sometimes feel stuck in a minor key. But Christian faith forbids us the myth of ultimate tragedy. We believe that creation is a free gift, and not even our finite will can finally frustrate the infinite grace of the living God.
So: do not fear the dark. It is in the dark that light has shone, and the darkness has not overcome it. Do not fear your sorrow; do not fear to grieve, do not fear to be sad, to suffer. But also: do not fear something new but not unheard-of, the restoration of things forsaken, the turning of dark night to bright morning. Do not be afraid of the interruption of self-imposed restraint, the moment of ordinary grace in which a different order seems to break through the cracks in you: the order of gratuitous generosity, the order of unmerited gifts, the order of extravagant joy. For the inestimable gift of life—your own, your neighbors, and especially that of Susie Illges Lanier Maxwell, offer up to God a cold and a broken Hallelujah.
After the election, you lost your ability to write. You told me you felt frozen. You were just trying to see clearly. What was the point of it all—the crippling doubt, the wrestling with words that will not bend, the tinkering with syllables, meter, form.
Should it be a villanelle or a rondeau, you asked yourself the night before. What a silly question now, you think.
What, you thought, when you woke up that morning, rubbing the gunk from your eyes. How.
You felt no commitment, no movement of soul, only a desire for retreat, for escape, for Netflix.
I know. I watched all of NARCOS Season 2 over two days in mid-November.
We have to be reminded to stop that. To get up, approach our art with a sort of painful, joyful urgency. Reminded to keep going, to hope against hope, to double down on our dedication to the good, the beautiful, the true.
Someone reminded me. So I am reminding you.
We need your wisdom, your wit, your impatience. We need your villanelle, your rondeau.
We need your pen, your bristle, your microphone. Your hammer, stone, and chisel. Your Gibson and your Kodachrome.
Do not let Donald Trump—of all people—cause you to question your vocation as an artist.
This world is still being made. You have work to do.
Someone told me, so I am telling you.
Do not be afraid.
Lining up in the fourth-grade carpool line every afternoon, we all prayed that it wouldn’t be Mrs. Dickson’s turn to ferry us home. She was a terrible driver—god-awful, and mean as a cottonmouth. But she did drive a 1972 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon in Nordic Blue, which was much easier than other station wagons to imagine as a spaceship; and with a vengeful 455 Rocket V-8 and squinty taillights, growled and looked just as mean as Mrs. Dickson. The Vista Cruiser had windows everywhere: a skylight above the middle row and huge, arching side windows in the back like a poor-man’s sunroof. Clearly designed to allow passengers to simulate the sensation of riding a scenic railway, blissfully taking in the passing vistas and contemplating the beauty of the American Road, The Vista Cruiser gave you a lot of options of places to look—up, to the side, out the back—anywhere but the road ahead, which Mrs. Dickson held to with great difficulty. Like every aspiring station wagon passenger-kid, you hoped that you were lucky enough to call the fold-up Death Seat in the way back, so you could look out behind you and pretend you were a tailgunner on a B-17, or not look ahead to see the road slipping out from underneath Mrs. Dickson.
By the time she pulled up to the curb on January 12, 1982, it was already early evening. Snow fell heavily in cones of light from streetlamps. It had been falling since about 2:00, when hopeful scattered flurries summoned forth childhood daydreams of animated snowmen and sledding down the buxom fairways of the public golf course. By the time school was supposed to let out at 3:30, a few inches had accumulated, along with the plans we were concocting about how we would spend the next day or two off. When the Vista rolled up not alongside but onto the curb, it was self-evident that there was no way we would be having school tomorrow.
By the next day people would be calling it “SnowJam.” We are famously incompetent at driving in winter weather, so when an unexpected snowstorm hit the city in the early afternoon, it hit hard and blind-side, and sent drivers into a panic, slip-sliding east-south. By Atlanta standards, it was a cataclysm, a bona-fide freakout. It was a big and fast surprise attack, like Herschel Walker storming over Bill Bates in Knoxville in 1980.
This would be the place to make the obligatory apologetic caveat to Northerners about how it was only a few inches and not a “real” storm. You may be right, hypothetical lake-effected Midwestern friend, but you were not riding in the back seat of Mrs. Dickson’s 1972 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser in January 1982.
It took an hour or more just to get off school property, and when we finally did reach the corner of the main road, Mrs. Dickson, exhausted and nerve-shattered, pulled the Olds over on the side of the road and threw it into park. She may have slid off and just given up, but that’s where we ended up, on the side of the road. She left the car and told us not to move an inch, while she went across the street to make a phone call. I assumed she was going to call our parents, but Mrs. Dickson was not the kind either to carry an address book or a photographic memory of telephone numbers. But that didn’t occur to any of us at the time. Years later, I learned that she called precisely no one. What she did do, while we sat stranded in the station wagon, the gently falling snow slowly flaking over the skylight on the Vista, was take the icy edge off a white-knuckled half-mile drive in an insanely overpowered vehicle—with three gin martinis.
She came back maybe an hour later, and I have no memory of the drive home—memory has a way of preserving you from things you don’t need—but somehow we made it home, all of us. For all I know the three gins may have improved Mrs. Dickson’s navigational skills; they could hardly have made them worse. In any event, it was a miracle we ever made it home. Not that any of that mattered to us; by the time we reached safe harbor, there was time only for a hot dinner and dreams of what the morning would bring, the intoxicating anticipation of an unseen landscape.
When the sun came up behind a thick cloud cover on the 13th, we awoke to a wintry playground, resplendent in blue-white light. Streets were closed off, and possibilities were everywhere. The questions we took with us to sleep found their answers: Would there be enough snow to make a snowball? Yes. Enough for a snowman? A dwarf one, maybe. Enough for Sammy Kellett to downhill ski on the big hill on Pineland Road? Oh, we’re going to find out.
It was the most improbable and sublime dispensation of grace for us kids: a snow day. And not just an iffy snow day, as if at any moment the alarms would start to sound like air raid sirens warning us that the school cancellation had been cancelled. Not this time. There was not a snowball’s chance in Atlanta that there was not going to be an all-day snow-fest the likes of which no local kid had ever seen. It was as if the entire world—especially the world of adults—had simply closed up shop for the day, all for us. It was unprecedented, epic, awesome.
And I got to watch it all through the big picture window in our living room.
I had come down with some sort of winter cold, which sidelined me for the entire powder party. Nary a snowflake for me. I drank Russian Tea and chicken broth and watched as Sammy did run after run down Pineland, my brother sled down on the Flexible Flyer, which, having been stowed in the basement for decades, was not as Flexible as it claimed. It was if it had spent its entire basement imprisonment waiting for this day. It was the greatest and most magical event in our lifetime, and I missed every last bit of it.
I had returned to health just in time to go back to school the next week, when our fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Hemphill, gave us all an assignment. We were to write an essay about our experience during the unmitigated frolicking of the previous week. This is the way it goes in the South. Snow days may be part of the routine for kids in Wisconsin, but we don’t plan the school year around winter contingencies. So if you’re going to get to sit out of school and play in the snow all day, you’re going to have to pay for it somehow. To atone for the gift of freedom we had been given, we had to pay for it by writing about it. (The school had been founded by Presbyterians, after all.) And then the next week, we were all going to read them in front of the rest of the class.
When the fated day of atonement came: a deluge of stories about snowball fights, sledding adventures, and so on. Like Gerald of Wales come back from the mythical mountains of Snowdonia, they told of fantastical creatures like snow-men, and activities otherwise unimaginable to a Southern kid. These were things that other people got to experience.
Then it was my turn. I stood up in front of the chalkboard like everyone before me had done, took a breath, and announced the title of my masterpiece: “Boring!”
The room erupted in laughter. They weren’t expecting that.
I told the story of having to sit the whole thing out, watching while my friends had the time of their lives. It was laced with the kind of sarcasm that only a fourth-grader can pull off. I had them eating out of my little 10-year-old hands. I knew then with perfect clarity that this was what I wanted to do with my life: reading my stuff in front of other people, trying to make them laugh at things they didn’t realize were funny.
But then the next 30 years happened: forgetful years in which I followed some other star. I started to come to my senses around 40, when the “Boring!” episode began to resurface more and more. It came out of hibernation like the Flexible Flyer, rusty and unused, but with a job to do: to call me back to a more basic self.
At some point, I lost the manuscript for “Boring!” It was gone by the time I was in my late teens, when I needed it the most, when I needed to be confronted with the person I was supposed to be.
I am sure that if I were to find the lost manuscript, I would be disappointed. It would not nearly be as good as I remember. We don’t preserve memories; they preserve us. It’s no longer the manuscript I need, but the memory, which took me thirty years to begin to understand.