by Wendell Berry
At the start of spring I open a trench
in the ground. I put into it
the winter’s accumulation of paper,
pages I do not want to read
again, useless words, fragments,
errors. And I put into it
the contents of the outhouse:
light of the sun, growth of the ground,
finished with one of their journeys.
To the sky, to the wind, then,
and to the faithful trees, I confess
my sins: that I have not been happy
enough, considering my good luck;
have listened to too much noise;
have been inattentive to wonders;
have lusted after praise.
And then upon the gathered refuse
of mind and body, I close the trench,
folding shut again the dark,
the deathless earth. Beneath that seal
the old escapes into the new.
We were nearing the end of our time together when my spiritual director posed a question, “Are you familiar with a Wendell Berry poem where he digs a compost heap?”
“Yes,” I said, “I am.” I thought back to the poem I’d printed and posted in the church’s prayer room one spring, laying it next to a print of a painting of blurred greens and browns.
“Maybe that’s an image you could work with, a kind of ritual to provide closure,” she suggested. “What, from your time at the church would could you put into that pile?”
We had been discussing my complicated, raw feelings about the pastorate I left suddenly at the beginning of March. It was a complicated leaving shaped by trauma and followed closely by the trauma of Covid-19. I thought about her question for a few minutes, picturing the brown soil of Berry’s trench cut in the ground.
“I don’t know yet,” I said, at last. “It’s all still so co-mingled together.”
She nodded, offering simple acceptance of my appraisal, but the image of compost has stayed with me.
Maybe this is what we need to know in this time and space, not the clarity and comfort of the either/or, but the difficult acceptance of both/and. The truth that there are no easy answers and that much of our experience is co-mingled – joy and sorrow, laughter and tears, love and hate, hope and despair.
Without this truth, we’ll wear ourselves thin in the endless need to part and parcel out every answer and, in declaring one side of any debate a winner, we will create countless unnecessary losers.
Both/and invites us to dwell in a place of creative tension – irresolution, if you will. It requires effort of a different sort, a willingness to remain open, a commitment to do the work of turning over ideas, emotions and view points. What if our fear and uncertainty might be transformed by the kind of creative alchemy we find in the compost heap? And what if we were to wait together, unified in faith, hope, and love, to see what emerges?
I am writing, of course, about my own recent experiences, but also about the uneasily resolved tensions we find ourselves in as we grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic. The thing we ought to fear is not the tensions of our divergent viewpoints, but our inability to hold them well, our unwillingness to recognize the creative possibilities of our current situations.
This past Sunday morning, I asked my kids how they felt about using the liturgy from the church where I recently pastored. Despite visiting a few other churches after my resignation, we’d returned to using aspects of this church’s liturgy once lockdown began. It was familiar, it was easy, but I was beginning to be certain it was time to move on and I wanted to find out what my kids were feeling.
“What do you think about using this?” I asked.
The younger boys, age 8, said, echoing each other, “We like it.”
Then, one quickly added, with a sly grin, “But we’re supposed to hate them now.”
His brother chimed in in agreement.
They were trying to show loyalty to me, for the hurt I experienced. They were reflecting their mixed emotions. They were voicing the creative tensions we all feel, the desire to stay with what’s familiar but painful and the need to create distance that will facilitate healing.
“Well,” I said, “you don’t need to hate anybody. But Dad and I feel it’s time to try something new.”
We joined another local church service online. We didn’t know the songs and I cried quietly through the first ten minutes or so. Sensing my sadness, our cat, Blackie, came and sat with his paws on my chest, massaging my heart with his comforting purr.
I hate the pain we are experiencing, the pain of unresolved endings, the pain of moving into something new, but undesired. It’s all so co-mingled right now. But we’re holding the tension, believing in the power of creation that makes all things new, the old seeping into the new in unexpectedly beautiful and amazing ways.
What co-mingled thoughts and feelings are you experiencing in this season? How are you holding tension creatively within yourself and with others?