Sunday, January 13, 2013


"We're Just Doing This" by Brian Kershisnik

Winter is dark. Oh, there is beauty in winter. God still sings, but the song is sometimes muted. Silence can be a song, I know. When we packed up Christmas, I asked Julie if we could leave a lighted wreath on our front door, an affirmation that light still prevails. It will give warmth and light and hope. It will beat back the darkness. Someone will be encouraged by its light. It will be worth the couple of dollars it adds to our electric bill. Freely we have received. Freely we will give.

Oliver ate so much candy on Christmas morning he puked. And then he ate some more. On the day after Christmas, Lydia asked if she could take some of her stocking candy to her friends in the neighborhood. She piled various saccharine substances shaped like or by Santa into a plastic bag, put on her snow boots, and dragged Emerson out the door. (This is not uncommon. A few weeks ago she got to pick anything she wanted at the dollar store for some reward she had earned. She chose a bag of red vine licorice. When we got home she asked if she could distribute licorice to her friends. One neighbor told me that his son was given a half piece because the rest was all gone. This son is two years old, and he was ecstatic. Freely Lyd had received, freely she gave.) Fifteen minutes after the kids left, they came home shivering and Em refused to go back out into the dark and cold. Lydia asked Oliver if he wanted to go delivering candy. I was only half paying attention and didn’t notice what the two-year-old was wearing. Half an hour later I was putting on my boots to go find my vagrant children when the door blew open and Oliver came in wearing a red coat I had never seen. Someone had seen my waifs out in the bitterdark winter and had compassion. Freely we have received.

A couple of weeks ago the skies scattered maybe six inches of snow on our city. I took up my shovel and went out front. Before I had cleared a path down the driveway, gentle brother DeRosier from next door appeared shovel-in-hand and smiling. Silently he began to help me clear my driveway. I don’t know how old he is—old enough to seem wise and mild—but he has had a stroke and moves somewhat slowly. I love that man. I asked him about Christmas. He told me that the best part was lying down on the carpet after dinner and watching his grandchildren play. After he had watched for a while, he closed his eyes and just listened to them. He smiled as he told me about it. By the time we were finishing, a new neighbor from across the street was out shoveling his driveway. He has a north-facing house. We went to help shovel and to get to know him. His name is George. He is a computer programmer and has four daughters. They all play instruments except the youngest. She plays the ipod and has a keen appreciation for the poetry of rap music. We smiled at each other as we finished shoveling and went our ways. Freely we received. Freely gave.

The summer after I graduated high school, I was driving my parents’ minivan near my house. On the side of the road was an old three-speed cruiser bicycle with a sign on it that said, “Free. Take if you want.” I stopped the van and had my friend drive it home. I got on the bike. I rode everywhere for the next few weeks. As summer ripened into fall, crispautumn smells filled the air. Crispautumn possibility shimmered. I was in love that fall. I put flowers in the small basket at the front of the bike. I whistled to myself and sang as I rode along cracked, uneven sidewalks underneath yellowandorangeandbrownred trees. I wondered if the golden streets of heaven might have these charming irregularities. I thought about mystery and how, well, mysterious it can be. Love and life and all that. One day as I rode off a curb, I pulled up on the handlebars so as to soar. The handlebars came off in my hands as the bike fell away below me. I continued my trajectory, steering an invisible bicycle through the air. Surprised, I almost landed on my feet. I called my friend to come pick me up. I was miles from home. I left the bike in a heap on the sidewalk and tacked a note to it. It said, “Free. Take if you want.”

That bike was a blessing to me. It is now a fondness residing in my memory. I always imagined that somehow it would go on to bless someone else. Someone in love. Someone in need. Some romantic. Some tragic. I imagined the small delegation of angels launched forth from heaven, wheeling and reeling with their tools, circling the old bicycle and making it shine like the day I found it, good enough to ride. I don’t know why I would imagine that my broken offering was somehow sufficient. Like the loaves and the fishes, broken and blessed. Broken bread. A broken heart and a contrite spirit. But I think it might be true. God gives liberally and then gives the grace necessary to make what we give in return somehow meaningful. Freely we have received. Freely we give what little we have. We do our best with the world and with the people in it. Our broken offerings are rendered sufficient.

My kidneys don’t work very well. And it’s just as well, really, because I got to get an MRI. It was fun. Truly. I don’t often have an hour to lie still and think. As I lay in that cold room, listening to beeps, I thought about the fact that I will soon begin a new semester of teaching. I was lamenting, really, that I will need to learn one hundred and seventy new names. They will not think I’m funny at first, perhaps ever. They will be depressed and sullen because the cold is beginning to infect our bones. We are losing the optimism that comes from the life-warming sun. But a thought entered my head: “Robbie, the most sacred experiences in life are the opportunities we are given to know other people. There is nothing so holy.” I thought about how my life has been blessed by the humor and the pain and the depth and experience of the students I currently teach. And what a blessing it will be to rub spiritual shoulders with a new batch. One hundred and seventy new and sacred names. And I felt a keen sense of my responsibility to share light. There may be something I am to do that would otherwise remain undone. Something to awaken in a young person’s heart. Something to spark. A poem from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours comes to mind:

I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.
I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for
may for once spring clear
without my contriving.

If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.

Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,
these deepening tides moving out, returning,
I will sing you as no one ever has,
streaming through widening channels
into the open sea.

I hope it is not arrogance, but I realized that I am God’s song. I am the harmony that floats above the whistling ruach. I am the laughter of His lips. My life is to disperse joy and meaning. And to receive. One Sunday morning my young son lifted the sacrament bread to my lips. I ate from his hands. I was the recipient of the ministrations of this small, holy child. Sometimes we are ministered to, and sometimes we minister. Freely I have received. Freely I will give.

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