On this day
I still wrestled my children
into their clothes,
still raced out the door
too late for comfort,
still pricked my finger with a rose thorn,
still feared that all my labour's in vain,
and found the evening slump
a little close to despair
everything changed, while nothing changed
and mustard seeds of life were at work
whether we noticed
Pregnant with its own hopeful future,
Bursting with change and the newness of experience…
The year stands,
A heaving monument to grace.“The Swelling Year”, 2019
I would not have written those words this year. I almost cannot imagine the world in which I did write them. Though I first wrote them in 2012, they seemed an apt way to describe the year that lay ahead – 2020 – when I released The Swelling Year this time last year. But have the words proven false, now that we know how 2020 has turned out? I don’t believe so. Though I would use different language to describe the longing for, and prospect of, grace to come in the COVID world, God’s goodness and providence are no less real now than they were 12 months ago. Each year stands as a living, breathing monument to grace. We may not yet know the ways that grace will have proven to have been at work in 2020, but we have glimpses. And so I will rejoice, sometimes feebly, sometimes confidently, in the truth of those glimpses.
The Swelling Year (1st Anniversary Edition) is available from Lulu.com now.
The scent was masked as we walked, though
hints of pollen pushed their way through cloth to me,
and on return
as I parked the pram and set
excited new walkers free to roam, I soaked
my senses in the radiance
of fruit trees delighting
in new white-pink growth, and the hope
that if not now, soon at least,
signs are sure, sure to be
Deprived of the ordinary markings of days -
drives to work, birthdays, people to celebrate -
more fervently to organic signs,
the constant shifts in the garden,
which trees have blossomed,
which ones have leaves,
how tall the pea plant has grown,
how white its petals.
These and the aphids signal time:
those and the snails migrating,
the worms beneath the compost,
the dead bird by the granny flat,
rising and falling daily tallies,
who died youngest, who's all clear
and how long until - we cannot say -
only greet other pilgrims on the way, and pray.
Bins at the curb, I pause
in a night of deep quiet
the thought that no-one else is here.
Sleepy suburban street rarely parties;
nights are seldom wild around here.
Yet silence catches with surprise:
no-one walking home from shops,
no night-time joggers,
no cars coming home.
No feet sharing this curb with mine.
And this weekly domestic act becomes
a moment of strange resistance,
a heartbeat-long yearning
to see other neighbours lugging their bins,
to duck down the street to No.16 and say,
"This package is yours. The postie
dropped it here by mistake."
But it's after 8 and I've no mask;
the edge of this block is the wall for my feet.
To love my neighbour tonight is to go
back inside and pray.
Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation…2 Corinthians 6:2
We did not choose you, would not repeat you.
Grief has built upon grief: ash and smoke first,
Then this, a time we can only call
"Unprecedented". And how it goes on,
How quickly "normal" becomes a word
Stripped of all meaning. How quickly "Stay safe"
Replaces "See you later." We saw none
Of this coming. Jetpacks and life on Mars
Were my childhood predictions, not this.
Yet future creeps up unannounced, and we,
Had we heard her coming, would
have moved to
Iceland, or bought shares in hand sanitizer.
Neither would we have chosen growth, or grace
Bulldozing our plans and saving us instead.
"Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created."
St Ignatius of Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises
Even this, Ignatius?
When all are in retreat in their homes,
when consoling and desolating spirits
vy for the attention of every moment,
when truth is in short supply
and what truth we have is despair,
can we catch divine movement behind a face mask,
hear the Spirit call beyond garden walls,
see will and purpose despite ailing hope,
even now can we notice
Christ animate the soul
though it flags and fails?
As the changing but constant expectations
of a year that no-one chose keep knocking
and the day of the Lord lingers and tarries from my watch-post,
to take this one quietly, on the bench,
with Saul and the others who couldn't run the race.
No shame in being worn out when
the swift themselves are flagging
and the flags
are all at half-mast or lower.
No prizes for laps of honour, least of all in a mask.
Preserve breath, preserve what
energy you have left, I say.
Though my words burn and I
would be better served not to speak
but to hear.
A voice like a whisper, like fire,
like a victor:
My yoke is easy. My burden is light.
No shoulders strong enough for burdens today;
even then, there is grace.
First you will learn about smiles,
how much you smile,
what's contained in a smile,
what's implied in the different degrees of smile:
in a curl of the lip at a funny thought,
in the mouth's outstretched corners
to greet the close acquaintance,
in the sardonic phrase,
the empathic moment.
All these things you will learn
when they cannot be seen.
And eyes. You will learn about eyes.
How readily you can recognise eyes
across a courtyard or carpark, how
much you can guess of a heart or a day
from the eyes poking out above the nose.
And breath. You will learn about breath.
You will taste it, smell it, absorb it all day.
You will choose your words and your silence to preserve
moments when you can simply breathe.
You will long to stand
in the garden
beside your office
and do nothing
in that afternoon air
but take off your mask and breathe.
And faces - you will catch, in their absence,
the beauty, the wonder of faces,
the heart-catching, God-splendoured glory of faces.
You will long for the faces
that you loved and despised,
will search the room for these faces,
will wish that these faces
could transfigure their otherness straight into yours.
You will cover your face
and stifle your breath
and halve your smile
in hope of the day,
to work for the day,
when all of our faces are back.
Yes, it takes our freedoms
because sometimes love does that:
for neighbour, for stranger,
for one who walks the same streets,
walks by your desk,
shops where you shop,
shares the same air.
Sometimes love lays down
rights - freedom of movement,
freedom of assembly,
freedom to smile and have others see -
because sometimes love judges
the more needful thing,
the truer way to be free.