I’m reading a novel about the fallout and displacements we usually mark as world events, like the Columbine shootings, 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina. The story, however, asks us to consider all the personal decisions 1) that go into creating such world events; and 2) that get spun out in reaction and response.
The book, by Wally Lamb, is titled “The Hour I First Believed.” I picked it up in an airport somewhere between here and there, and started it, and put it down too many times. I’m determined now to get through all 729 pages.
But the further I read into it, the deeper the story runs. It’s also about multiple lives that come to us through our lineage; how they interrupt or punctuate our own journeys in ways we recognize and miss. How the streams of our ancestors — that flow on our surface or deeper, in our awareness or hidden completely — are as real and powerful and impinging as the world itself.
There comes an episode in the novel where the protoganist Caelum Quirk and his tenant Janis visit the Mark Twain House in Hartford (right across the street from Emmanuel Congregational Church. UCC where Jim and Margaret Smith were members, if I remember correctly). Their visit is occasioned by Janis’ study of the letters of Caelum’s Great-grandmother, Lydia, an abolitionist and founder of a women’s reformatory… and once a dinner guest of Sam Clemens and his family.
In Caelum and Janis’ visit, they realize a river mentioned in Lydia’s letters, the river that used to run behind the Mark Twain House — as well as under Hartford’s Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch — is no longer there. They wonder if maybe the city, or its civil engineers, have “forced it underground.”
The image of a river buried but flowing under our current landscapes is powerful. Perhaps because I know of such hidden rivers. And their force, even with a whole city built on top of them.
Where I once lived in Manhattan, just north of Columbia University, there had been a creek and even a waterfall, so water could make its way down from Morningside Heights to 125th Street which is itself built on a covered stream bed that once carried water to the Hudson. I only learned about the now submerged creek from an engineer’s report shared in the coop’s newsletter.
In an unrelated discovery, I learned later that Columbia had tapped one of the springs that was the origin of this creek, to fill a pool used at the north end of campus, just south of 120th Street. But even with some of its source diverted, this creek continued to flow, albeit now underground, under, around and through the maze of foundations for buildings filling in the 5 blocks down the hill.
The last time I thought about this was while I was house-hunting here in Philly. A realtor warned that a wet basement is never good news. More ominously, he advised that sometimes dampness can indicate an active creek is still running under a house.
Years before, I had looked at a home in Central New York with my brother, Peter. A beautiful old farm house. But the basement actually had a stream running through it. Water flowing visibly, the sounds of a gurgling traversing across the basement floor that had already all but washed away. The rafters holding up the first floor were all soft, dark, wet, rotten, even mushroomy. A beautiful house that was going to have to be rebuilt on top of some sort of pilings that could not only anchor, but hold it aloft over the wet flow.
Which is all to suggest that each of our lives has a creek going through it… The running water of those who have come before us and will surely come after us. And we try and build or moor something sturdy and steady on top of it, lest it causes us great damage, even to wash away.
All of which reminds me of what the researcher of the historic letters pointed out in the novel:
“I was just thinking that that’s what your ancestry’s like. Anyone’s ancestry, really not just yours, but yours is what’s on my mind because of Lydia’s diaries… Think about it. What do we do when our elders die?”
“Call the undertaker and start fighting over the will,” Caelum quipped.
“No, really. We put them in the ground, right? But we also carry them forward, because our blood is their blood, our DNA is their DNA. So we’re intimately connected to these people whose lives — whose histories – have gone underground and become invisible to us.”
“Like that river,” Caelum added.
“Right. Except in your case, a spring has bubbled up. Your Great-grandmother is speaking to you, Caelum. …To both of us maybe.”
This Sunday we will celebrate the Christian triduum of Hallowmas—Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. Join us.
In the gathering together or the space left between us, in the sounds or in the silence, perhaps you will begin to recognize the waters that run deep through you and sometimes gurgle up like a spring. Maybe you can even begin to ask how you find them dangerous and how they could be life-giving.
Before God, we will enter into these strange waters and come before this ragtag procession from the past that can include characters like:
~ the unknown foreigner by whom your people arrived on these shores,
~ the family legend whose reputation is too idolized to be that pure,
~ the austere grandfather who hardly spoke a word,
~ the dogmatically sure mother whose focus and certainty did more harm than good,
~ and the one that was somehow – still inexplicably – lost along the way…
Actually, they will join us in worship. Such a cloud of witnesses. Old, recognized or not, and not always welcome acquaintances of ours. Stirred by the flow of the water and the dance of their three days. Perhaps also awakening us. Unlikely, uneasy saints; only saints as one of the deep mysteries of God.
Who knows what was home in their hearts or how they are home in ours?
Join us for these hallowed days, the feast of those who tried to follow the way, so often falling off the path and with each step so uncertain, that no one — not even they themselves — knew or noticed their walking with Jesus… His feast then, not ours. Except that he offers it to us. And therein, it’s the only one most of us can even imagine or ever know.
See you in church,