Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever;
Do noble things, not dream them, all day long:
And so make life, death, and that vast forever
One grand sweet song.
“It is indeed a remarkable fact that sufferings and hardships do not, as a rule, abate the love of life; they seem on the contrary, usually to give it a keener zest; and the sovereign source of melancholy is repletion. Need and struggle are what excite and inspire. Our hour of triumph is what brings the void.”
It is not my habit to live in the present. I either linger on past moments of tenderness or future dreams of glory. Suffering brings the present–the present as gift and challenge. Living life as a cup in need of filling (by other people, by success, by healthy foods and by writing) is a sad fiction with tragic consequences.
So often I strive (in search of what?). I don’t believe creative pursuits are meaningless or bad yet when I make idols I miss things. I hunger after food that does not satisfy. I forget others. I avoid others. They interfere with my goals (my declared and undeclared wants disguised as needs).
I’d like to write a better post this week yet winter lingers here at Middlemay Farm with a host of sufferings and difficulties. I confess that January felt laden with disappointment, boredom and wasted time. February was no better until one day when I’d gotten up especially early to get stuff done before having to wash staph-infected goats with lime sulfur (yes, it smells of rotten eggs) I stumbled upon a verse from the Bible.
“The Lord is peace.” Judges 6:24
Four simple words. Words almost cliche. Yet they struck me as the opposite of how I’d been living my life. After years of striving, yoga, green smoothies, tantrums, therapy and complaint, I suddenly saw that I’d bought into the lie that I was a cup “needing” to be filled. God led me to write novels. Some may scoff at such a notion but there are just some things that jump out at you in life. The mission placed on me, embedded in my DNA, is to write fiction for those of us who are terribly flawed. Those of us who believe we’ve taken things too far and are irredeemable. I once was there.
But missions can get corrupted as easily as anything else. A review comes in. A reader finds a book’s characters too damned flawed. For a moment, maybe even a day, I wander the farm wondering: Is it true that some people are just not lovable?
On an intellectual level I believe God loves us–all of us, but I fall prey to feelings, and feelings lie. I let my characters go through quite a lot of hardship. They grow that way. I love them and the people I write for. Fictional characters live in the past and future.
In the NOW there are real people who suffer minor slights and major catastrophes all around us. I find them insufferably flawed. I say to my husband things like: if this one goat I love does not get better soon I want her taken out back and shot. Do I mean it? Sometimes. Maybe? Not really.
It’s very easy for me to blind myself to the suffering of others when I’m stomping my feet and needing my cup filled.
So what is this peace?
I used to think it was an easy thing for the Lord to have peace. If I had complete control wouldn’t I have peace?
Honestly I’d have to say no. It’s obvious that none of us are gods, but I make idols of people and things all the time. Idols bring no peace. Striving brings no peace.
I think the point of the four words is that while there are lesser things to love, to struggle with and to mourn over God remains present. As in the moments. Right now. As writers we create characters, serenely aware of our deep love for them (would our characters know that as we allow their suffering?). Unlike us God isn’t scripting for an exciting dystopian young adult novel. His story is sadly not as well known as it should be.
At the end of our suffering there is peace–something we are only awake to on rare occasions in this life. Those times in suffering when a nurse stays with you all night or when a dog jumps into your sick bed. Those moments temporarily fill our perceived empty cups. But here is where we look at it wrong. God’s peace is for the givers more than the takers. To look at a creative pursuit or mission as a love offering to others instead of a way to pant after good reviews and limelight is to change everything.
I’m no saint. I hate kids, animals and the world for brief moments every day when I’m looking to be filled.
But there’s something better.
Let not ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.
Nor you, ye proud, impute to those the fault,
If memory o’er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where, through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault,
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark, unfathomed caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute
What you can do, or dream you can; begin it;
Boldness has genius, power, magic in it.
Only engage, and then the mind grows heated;
Begin and then the work will be completed.
This may be the last time ever to hear the haunting, unusual and poignant songs of slavery!
So went some of the advertisements for the Jubilee Singers’ concerts in the early 1870’s. And it was true. For despite the many tours of the ensemble after the first few its heart changed with the death of their tireless conductor George White.
George White demanded much of the group of former slaves, children of plantation owners and those who never tasted slavery at all—their time, their health, their unswerving loyalty to the mission they believed was from God. For such young men and women (the youngest only 15) they carried themselves with great nobility, shocking many of the Northern crowds who had never seen slavery up close and even those who despised their arrival and tried to be rid of them.
The wife of an innkeeper was tied back by a humiliated husband so she could not pummel the young black woman playing the piano in the parlor of the inn. The innkeeper’s wife was disgusted at the thought of dark hands on her ivory keys.
For many winter months the troupe went hungry. The mission society they were affiliated with saw George White’s passionate project as a fool’s mission and a slight embarrassment to their organization until after months of small crowds, blatant racism and food at irregular intervals something changed. At every stop, like the Jews wandering in the desert after their own escape from slavery, God in the guise of enlightened people provided just enough to keep the cold and hungry band from giving up.
“There were many times, when we didn’t have place to sleep or anything to eat. Mr. White went out and brought us some sandwiches and tried to find some place to put us up.” Other times while the singers would wait in the railway station, White “and some other man of the troupe waded through sleet or snow or rain from hotel to hotel seeking shelter for us”*
Henry Ward Beecher of the famous Beecher clan invited them to perform at his church in Brooklyn. The Jubilee Singers brought the house to tears.
Some people really hate the idea of a “white” hero helping his downtrodden fellow man– as if it makes the efforts of the talented group of singers less inspiring. At any given point the young people could have quit. Their mission was to raise funds not for themselves but their foundering and beloved school, Fisk University.
When someone survives a great trial in life they have two choices. To many, a quiet life remembering their heroism with satisfaction is the road taken. To some, remembering in their own trial the suffering of others, the only path is one that turns back with outstretched hand as soon as they reach a place of decent footing.
Some may remember from a PREVIOUS POST that George White came home from the war a shattered man. Tuberculosis lingered in his lungs. He married a friend’s sister when they met at Fisk. White managed the school’s shaky finances while his wife taught. This worry over finances and White’s love of music and the freedmen led him on an improbable journey. His enthusiasm and belief in his troupe when most people held little regard for the abilities of black people inspired the young men and women to believe in themselves.
They played before presidents and queens. At a time when many may have wanted to bury their sad songs with the many dead of the war, White saw musical value, saw a cultural treasure and demanded it be preserved. Many ex-slaves sang these songs to each other in ashamed whispers. White demanded they come into the light and respect themselves as valued members of God’s family.
In time members of the troupe were drawn away to pursue solo careers or work in other areas. White struggled not to feel abandoned by them. He’d lost his first sickly wife while touring England (he’d hoped the trip would heal her). His own tuberculosis came in fits of bloody coughs. Ella Shepherd ( soprano, piano, organ, and guitar) stayed true to her maestro. She worried White would die before returning to the states with his three young children.
White carried on. He insisted he practice with his beloved Jubilee Singers even when he opposed a certain concert they wanted to perform. I imagine he was caught up in the music when he fell from the platform and shattered his leg. For the rest of his years he could barely walk. His second wife was forced to clean houses. White had given every cent he’d ever made to the Jubilee Singers. He died of a massive stroke at 57.
What is the soundtrack of your life?
George White’s first troupe of performers were never recorded. By the turn of the century others eagerly sought to refine and record songs like Swing Low Sweet Chariot, but I imagine it wasn’t the same thing playing in the ears of soldiers passing field hands during the war. It wasn’t the same as the voices of The Jubilee Singers with only one foot out of slavery and wondering about a future yet to come.
Quote from DARK MIDNIGHT WHEN I RISE
“The old time blacks,” wrote James Thomas, “never used to take much stock in the ‘Yaller’ Nigger. They called him ‘No Nation,’ ‘a Mule,’ ‘yaller hammer.’” *
Mulattoes under slavery were in a tight spot. Often times a master’s half-white children were brought in as house slaves. Some were educated and some were eventually given their freedom. ANDREW WARD suggests in his book DARK MIDNIGHT WHEN I RISE that some women slaves submitted to their masters for the very reason that their children might be seen differently and treated better—but by whom? Their skin betrayed to all that tribal lines had been crossed.
Darker slaves saw themselves as superior blacks with pure blood.
They even admired their masters for keeping the races pure. We can only imagine what white mistresses thought about their husbands’ liaisons (or what fathers thought when their daughters eloped with black slaves). Yet even light blacks expressed certain stereotypes. “Some folks say that when a ‘Nigger’ is so black he just naturally mean.”*
Ward tells of a Jubilee Singer’s lineage, one so full of halves and fulls, of slaves and whites, we are met with again the notion that race, color and stereotypes are never simple things.
We do judge books by their covers. We all do. I do.
This summer my (soon to be adopted) “low-functioning” daughter and I sat waiting at the station with my two “normal” teenagers who were taking a bus south (to New Jersey). A young man about twenty interrupted our good-natured bickering about money for snacks for the bus.
You know that feeling of slight annoyance when someone asks for change and they seem to be pouring on the gratitude a bit thick?
In truth we were looking for change for the vending machine and the young man in wrinkled clothes was looking for a dollar bill. We did an even exchange and after profusely thanking us he walked off.
The bus was late.
Saratoga Springs Station is a quiet place. I like eavesdropping and people watching. I’d made up my mind that the rough-around-the-edges young man now grubbing a cigarette from the obviously university educated man about the same age was the type to find trouble. I cringed at the way the university guy gave over a cigarette with faint disgust.
Yet something about the young smoker cursing up a storm now and pacing as he spoke on an old phone to a family member in Pittsburgh mesmerized me.
From what I could catch the young man was dead broke. He had a 24 hour layover somewhere west, and he looked rake thin. Maybe because I felt a tad guilty for judging him, after we saw my teenagers off, I slipped the smoker some money (I say this not to brag of my generosity for I’d just spent a good thirty minutes eavesdropping and judging). Now when this sort of thing happens my tendency is to never make eye contact. I’m shy and don’t like intimate encounters, but for some reason our eyes met and the young man cried.
I mumbled something about God loving him or something (I NEVER do this) but felt even though I was in a hurry to move on that he needed some basic inspiration and this is what popped into my head.
My girl and I walked to the car. We sat in the car mulling things over. The good thing about “low functioning” people is sometimes they just cut to the chase. My girl said, “You feel it too, don’t you? We should go back.”
I turned the key in the ignition. “No. What would we say? No, we did what we could.” We drove around the parking lot three times. I kept hoping the kid would be gone but there he sat, now with his head in his hands, shoulders shaking.
“God wants us to go back!” my kid kept saying with urgency.
I will admit that by now after having met the young man’s eyes my entire perception of him changed. As we lingered at the exit before a stop sign I was compelled to turn around, park and with pounding heart and red face walk up to the man who I now noted had a bruised face.
My girl looked up to me for words. I stumbled around a bit but finally said, “Okay, so you may think we’re freaks but something . . .” I looked at my girl. “Well, you see, we think God wants us to sit with you for a while.”
I waited for him to tell us to back off. He didn’t. He told us his life story. He told us his mother abandoned him to foster care where he spent days locked up in a room without food. My kid told him she’d experienced the very same thing.
Imagine a little girl and a full grown man crying over past hurts.
It was obvious from the man’s story that he’d made some mistakes in life with so little guidance and so little love. He’d moved from his grandfather’s house a while back for a good job in construction. After a falling out with his boss and a night spend drinking his unemployment news away, someone mugged him. Only moments ago he’d called his sister begging for her to meet him somewhere only to be told his grandfather had just died but they’d had no way of contacting him. The phone he had called her from had been borrowed.
Okay so some of you reading this may be thinking the guy was just a storyteller. But to me it was this incredible God moment. We prayed together (again, I’m pretty private about my prayer life but there was this compulsion—something beyond myself, beyond my girl, too). The man mentioned he read the Bible hardly ever (I mean, who really does?).
My girl, only a year from the mental ward where we were told she had no hope and that she’d spend her life a zombie, ran back to the car.
I had told her to bring a book to read in the car because sometimes she just talks and talks and talks. I get peevish when this happens. She ran up to us breathlessly and handed the man named William her raggedly little Children’s Bible someone had given her long before I knew her.
This man William (I hope he’s doing well) was tanned from outdoor work. My girl was pale white from the hospital and group home and I was freckled. But for a brief moment we were all the same.
Quotes from DARK MIDNIGHT WHEN I RISE
Related: WHAT IT REALLY COSTS TO FOLLOW JESUS