Tuesday, June 12, 2012

My Jo'

Where do you turn when things are hard? Chocolate, right? Except those very wise (if fleeting) moments when we turn to Scripture.

Right after my husband started seminary, I painted three words BIG on a scrap piece of canvas and hung them in our tiny apartment: "Thy kingdom come." It summarized the Lord's prayer for me, reminded me what my focus should be during the daily struggle with laundry and a very fussy baby—especially when I found out she would be followed very quickly by a little brother.

Later, I heard a lady speak on a half-verse taken (out of context) from James. It spoke to me, and I painted it on another piece of that canvas I was slowly butchering for inspiration: "Count it all joy." That one, especially, I've spoken to myself over and over in the hard years that followed. No matter the loss, no matter the trials—count it all joy.

I've reached a point where...that's hard. It's harder to laugh away the pain and the trials. One night this week, I locked myself in the bathroom and wondered, What now? I remembered the verse—count it all joy. It had lost some of its mystery and started to sound a little insane. I thought about digging through the boxes in the garage to find my little canvas scraps of inspiration, but I was just too tired, and "counting it all joy" sounded like one more thing to do. I'd had enough to do.

But inside the house, not packed in the garage, I have a Norton Anthology of Poetry. I decided to kill another piece of canvas, but this time with a poem.

One of my favorites is T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. When I think of the line about kneeling in the place where prayer has been valid—I think of so many people—monks, poets, mothers, men—who have gone before me, who have run with the banner of faith and not let life or trials bear them down, who have held that banner for me, all these centuries behind, to still have something to look to.

I love everything by Gerard Manley Hopkins—most of all To the Windhover and  God's Grandeur. The idea of the world being smeared and bleared with man's trade and smell, that we are blind to God, and yet the Holy Spirit is brooding over us with ah! bright wings—the meter alone is filled with hope.

I turned the pages of the Norton Anthology, one at a time, two, five, ten, and one again. Slowly—like you never do in college when you have to gulp down 100 pages of reading per night. And I remembered a poem by Robert Burns that I'd discovered on St. Patrick's day two years ago, when the internet said Burns was Irish, and I believed the internet. My Scottish husband has since set me right.

It's an obscure poem about John Anderson, "my jo"—my joy. It's a poem about two old men, their youth together, their memories, friendship, and at last the final "tottering" down the hill of life, where Burns expects to be buried beside his friend. The poem has the bittersweet tang of truth and for some reason has always made me think of my husband. And I realized that despite Shakespeare's sonnets and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's beautiful turn of phrase, this is the one poem in the world I would give to my husband, if I were to choose a poem someone else wrote, and give it to my best friend, my dearest love.

So I copied Burns' poem—onto a big sheet of art paper, because as it turns out, my canvas scraps are in the garage, too—and I turned my piles of frustration and pain onto a canvas where I didn't have to find the words, just write them. And I gave my husband a love poem like only I would pick—about two old men tottering down a hill "thigether."

And once again I found the healing power of words, remembered the joy of my husband, my kids, and my life, and lay down that night in peace—to do it all again in the morning.

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