The questions of my death are the questions of my life: what is best for my family, should I plant more squash this year, can I afford a new chainsaw, a new roof? Who needs to ponder the imponderable when you have so many ponderables to begin with. Those other questions, the death ones, remain unanswered and, most likely, always will because, for one thing, I don’t have too many of them (I can only think of one right this minute, and even that just slipped my mind), and, for another, I don’t bother too much with the ones I’ve got. I have no creed to guide me. Migratory creatures do not get where they’re going by reading the Bible, and neither do I. They home in on their destinations by inner mechanisms which detect the earth’s magnetic field and guides them like a compass. As the late, great linebacker of the late, great Baltimore Colts, Big Daddy Lipscomb, answered when asked how he managed to get to the ball carrier with such unerring accuracy, “I pick ‘em up and toss ‘em aside ‘til I gets to the one I want.” That about sums it up.
In truth, I have read the Bible, “The Sermon on The Mount” and “The Book of Job” more than a few times each. There are things in there that do give me thought: that, “still, small voice” for one, that, “In the beginning was the word…” is another. The legend goes that Hillel, the great Hebrew sage of classical Greece, was asked to explain Torah while standing on one leg. “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you,” he said. “That is Torah. All the rest is commentary.” Hillel and Jesus seem to have agreed. As, I think, do I. The Holy Ghost business? The slay mine enemies stuff? A burning bush? Bones coming to life? Feh. But, do unto others…? It’s a start.
But, what exactly would you have them do unto you? And you to them? That’s where the still, small voice enters the story. Your still small voice, not theirs. What would you do? What would I do?
I would try to be still.
A while back I went to sea with the last native whale hunters in the Grenadines, three of them, all in their seventies, the descendants of Caribe Indians and African slaves, the toughest men I’ve ever been with, and that includes career soldiers, boxing champions, and at least one linebacker. I hadn’t met these men, yet, but this particular day I waited on a rotting jetty at sunset for them to come back in. I knew they were aware of me as they beached their boat - twenty-three feet, battered, and open – Faith was her name, painted on with red paint as if done by a child with a house painting brush. The three man crew gave no indication they’d seen me as they stored their equipment in a weathered shed, then, as one, they turned and headed my way. They were as fierce as any men I’d ever seen. I had choices and maybe a nanosecond to choose. This thought came to mind, “You’d better be still, as still as you’ve ever been. Do not think. Bring it in. Be still. Be still. Be still.” They came right up to me. I smiled. They smiled. Would it have been thus had I not been so quiet? My still, small voice, tells me it might not have been. I’ve learned not to dispute it.
Darwin’s biographer tells us that one of his subject’s gifts was the ability to walk into a meadow, a patch of woods, any terrain at all, and just be still, be absolutely still, stand there and see and hear. When folks talk about a perfect world yonder, I wonder what world they think they’re living in right now? For one thing, “perfection” implies something positioned in place forever. Evolution tells us that nothing is. You want to believe otherwise, go ahead. This is America. We’re talking about me not you.
I began by wondering what “comfort” meant to me. It’s here, in this place, being still. I don’t need miracles like a burning bush or water into wine or splitting the moon when I realize that I actually see in color, when I know that under my feet every tree in the forest is literally communing with every other tree in the forest through their root systems: Need water? How’s that fungus? Need poison sap to fend off that beetle? What kind?
The idea that moss – common moss, normally ignored moss – plays such a vital role that without it there would be no forest at all. And the sight of a full moon over new snow! Tree limbs cast crooked shadows. The creek shines pewter. Is there any other sight that strikes one so dumb with wonder? Then the silence, as if you were under a featherbed wearing earmuffs. Notice, in all of these, nothing is on fire. No shapeshifting liquids. No stentorian words rumbling from a rock. Does that mean moss and forests, moon and snow and silence are not miracles? Miracle as occurrence awesome and exceptional, so awesome that it obliterates everything else, leaving me standing in the midst of it all right where I am on earth, flooding me with awe, connecting me with forever, filling me with joy to be in the presence of the exceptional.