Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Pilgrim: a story--I

He stopped for gas at the Shell downtown, stuck in his credit card, and the blasted pump wouldn’t work. It was early, the sky dark except for a swell of light in the east—time to get moving, maybe even a few minutes late.

He tried another pump. Nothing. He was losing time and he knew it. He glanced east, where the broad reach of morning kept eating up dark sky. Jumped back in the Jeep and headed for another gas station, the one just outside of town, where the pumps worked, thank goodness.

Since Carolyn left, it had become ritual to head out of town on Sunday mornings all by his lonesome—there was no one else anymore—and look for the dawn. Two and one-half months it was since he’d heard a word, almost a year and a half she’d been gone.

Just outside of town, it was clear that some of the possibilities for the morning’s glory had already faded.

Where was he headed?—other than west? He didn’t know. Okay, he figured, gamble. It was too late to go for the tried-and-true places—a skeletal old barn he loved to frequent, ancient corn cribs, two or three broken cottonwoods, like Seventh Cavalry sentries alone in miles of open space. You can’t get out to the sweet spots anymore because you started too late, he told himself, so just scout around. Maybe you’ll get lucky, one of those crap-shoot Sabbaths that sometimes leads to glory, sometimes to blowout. You never know what you’ll find, what you’ll stumble over.

He crossed the bridge, then turned left at the edge of the hills on the west bank, down a river valley road swallowed by cottonwoods, a place he’d never been before, maybe twenty miles from home. A mile and a half down, a gravel road angled sharply west up the slope of the hill, still surrounded by trees. He knew he had to get up to the top somehow—that’s where the action was. A yellow sign warned about turns—a squiggly arrow. He gunned it anyway, kept waiting for the inevitable break in the trees.

When he got to the top, there was nothing at all up there but a couple dozen pastured cattle that spooked the moment he pulled over in the Jeep. He got out, stuck the camera in the tripod, and started tromping through snow about a half mile north, nothing but prairie sprawling as far as you could see, north to south.

Before him the river valley opened upstage to a cloudless dawn, but the temperatures over what open water there was created a gossamer mist over the bottom land. Between those sheets of wispy fog, the banks of trees and everything else far beyond, that entire broad landscape—twenty or thirty miles of it —was all bronze and buttery. Mother lode, he told himself.

Above the boots, his pant legs were snowy-cold in minutes. He put down the tripod and started shooting. And then it came, that bold bridegroom of Psalm 19, its livery so resplendent it was blinding. If there was more beauty somewhere between him and that lousy apartment, he didn’t know where it would have been.

He panned left, panned right—tried a silhouette behind an eight-foot volunteer cedar up on the bluff, a single extended branch cutting darkly through the glorious color.

Next week he’d have a show, a warm gesture by good Christian friends to salve his pain. His landscapes were representational, even clichéd, just so many calendar–ready inspirationals; but some friends in the Art Department offered a space for therapy. It would be good for Ray to have a show—the man needs a break and people will love his stuff, they said.

Everybody knew the outline of his story, but nobody knew the guts because nobody else saw the e-mails. He was the only one to read what she said, what she didn’t.

He kept snapping shots. He was a rank amateur and he knew it, just one of countless bugs who bought fancy digitals and snapped thousands of landscapes. How many monkeys would it take, hunched over computer keys, to type out the Bible? If you take a million pictures, three or four ought to be stunning.

He had to tell himself to quit, pull his hand back from the camera, his cold hand, and just look; because what he’d come out for wasn’t really photography. He’d come out, as he did every Sunday, to find words to praise, the words he’d lost forever-ago when she’d left and taken so much with her, leaving him with nothing. This—what was spread before him—was God’s workmanship.

The first came four months and counting after she’d left. She simply said for him not to worry, even though she knew him well enough to know that wasn’t possible. “I’m okay, sort of,” the note said, sent, he guessed, from some public library or a Starbucks, who knows where? “Just to let you know I’m alive.”

He typed something back immediately, words to which she’d never responded because she’d never responded to anything he’d sent back, part of whatever damned therapy she was doing, self-imposed or otherwise. Who knew what was going on in her head?—a woman he once thought he knew inside and out, before what had happened. She just left, period. Just took off.

Therapy. The open sky came back into view. Once dawn shed its buttery hue, once the long shadows started to run back down the hill from the cottonwoods just beneath him, once the sun had become a huge ball of blinding fire, he stood there in silence beside the tri-pod. What he’d come for, out there in the hills, was a moment alone in a honey-ish morning opened into life itself. Therapy.

No one had told him to do it, no shrink—although he’d been there. No grief counselor had said, “Ray Martin, what you need to do is shoot landscapes, early morning landscapes.” It was a therapy he’d stumbled on in the Jeep, along with a fancy Nikon he bought after she left, a kind of compensation his abandoned soul deserved: the camera and an open waiting world, fields and plains so flat and wide people said you could watch your dog run away for three days.

In February, and it was cold—February of 1884—two hearses stood outside Fifth Presbyterian Church, New York City, one of them holding Teddy Roosevelt’s mother, another his wife, two women so close to the man it’s a wonder he ever lived through their deaths, both on the same day. Ray Martin found himself drawn to TR because Roosevelt found comfort in the vast openness. These hills had become, for him, a comfort and a blessing, just as they’d been for Teddy. When Carolyn had left Freeport, he’d left not long after, giving up the ministry too. An old colleague told him they needed a fill-in religion prof for a colleague, a woman who’d had the baby that the two of them had always wanted.

Therapy. His. What did Calvin say in the early passages of the Institutes?—“wherever you turn your eyes, there is no portion of the world that does not exhibit some sparks of beauty. It is impossible to contemplate the vast and beautiful fabric without being overwhelmed by the immense weight of glory.” He’d read it a week ago, typed it out into his ideas file, as if he were still preaching because he wanted to let it work on him, something, at least, in all this nothingness.

And Pascal—“You should always keep something beautiful in your mind.”

He stood there looking out over lines of trees and beyond to the little river town a couple miles east, all the way to the long stretch of open land beyond, here and there a farmstead like a charcoal smudge against the burnished gold of early morning, the closest he could come to prayer.

When, later, the tripod over his shoulder like a rifle, he walked back to the Jeep, he’d tell himself that it had been a good day, a good morning, even though he knew that when he got back and unloaded the files, he’d find, as he always did, that none of the dozens of landscapes he’d taken could ever be as beneficent as the morning itself.

No matter. He collapsed the tripod, stuck it in the back seat. Even if none of those shots were as magnificent as the dawn, at least he’d been there. “Numbering our days” had come to mean, somehow, treasuring beauty, he told himself, being reminded, of a creation so immense it wouldn’t fit in his camera. Master Eckhard, the German mystic: “There is a place in the soul that neither time, nor space, nor no created thing can touch.” He wasn’t sure whether anyone else fully understood that or could, but he did. And God did too, and that was all he needed to know on a Sunday morning, a hedge against the emptiness at home, whatever it was he called home.

Roosevelt had said that Alice was the light of his life, then told a score of people that nothing would ever be the same with him. He would never get over her death

If you go with an open heart, he’d read somewhere, the openness will reveal amazing things. Teddy wanted to be remade by nothing less than the beauty of emptiness.


"Pilgrim" will spread out over the next few days.  Tomorrow:  Ray can't escape the horrors of his loss.

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