It was all right, I knew, and so I drew lots of pictures of it. Grandma wasn’t sick anymore; Grandma was with Jesus, somewhere in the sweet by and by. I was going to wear a navy velvet dress and black leather shoes and sing “Amazing Grace” with my brother at her funeral. I was only five years old, but I was a pious little child and firmly believed someday I would go see Jesus and her together. The three of us would be very happy, and that was a moment worth drawing pictures of, so I drew lots of pictures of it. Of course it was all right. I drew pictures of it.
Then came the time to put on the dress and go to the funeral home and sing “Amazing Grace.” Then came the time to sit down and be quiet and listen to my father tell stories about Grandma. They were good stories. Then, in the middle of my favorite one, he stopped. Although the story wasn’t over, he stopped, eyes red, said a few more words, quiet now, and his voice was thick now when he talked. He stopped again, and he began sobbing. He wasn’t just crying; he was shaking now, weeping, unable to carry on.
This was not something I could have drawn a picture of, if I had tried. Still, even without a picture, I can see it all now: my little hands folded in the navy velvet of my lap, my black shoes not quite reaching the floor, my aunt beside me, holding me and a box of tissues at the same time, and my father up in front, beside the casket, weeping. For the first time in five years of living, it was not all right. How could it be? He was my father, and still is, and fathers by definition do not cry. They hold you when you cry. They hold your mother when she comes home late, crying and whispering into his shoulder, “It’s over. She’s home now.” But fathers do not cry. My childish vision of my dad, utterly strong and therefore unmovable, unshaken by any tragedy, died that afternoon in the funeral home. It seemed I had lost not one but two people that day.
No, it does not seem all right—that story of a God they call the Morning Star who moved, who left heaven and the sweet by and by for earth, to be cut down by young braggarts, to fall on the beams of a fallen tree, to weep at the side of his friend's casket.Hannah Hubin
I thought of that afternoon again a few years ago, when I was sixteen and finishing Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow for the first time. I hope you’ve read it, because it’s one of the books I can honestly say has changed my life forever; and from what I can tell, a lot of folks around here say the same. I also hope you’ve read it because I’m about to spoil the ending. Somewhere in the final few chapters, a young braggart named Troy cuts an ancient forest down to a stack of lumber. The grove is more than a timber stand; it is a symbol for the town of stability and strength—the unmovable, old vision of life—and it falls. When he discovers what Troy has done, the main character Jayber calls himself “a man whose knees were weakening against gravity, who needed to go somewhere and lie down.”
Before my father wept at my grandmother’s funeral, I had never seen a forest fall.
If I could go back, what would I say to that five year-old girl in the navy velvet dress, walking into the funeral home, holding her father’s hand? “Don’t fool yourself, kid. He’s not as strong as you think he is.” Would I? Is he? Or perhaps I would just sidle up next to her and whisper in her ear, “You’re going to need somewhere to lie down.”
I learned last year that the north star—that steady point of navigation—changes ever so slowly. Earth rotates on an axis, and the poles drift through the star field, and we pass from one star to another. Polaris is our north star, but only for now. In the year 13,700 AD, Vega will be our new north star, or so I have been told by friends and foreigners who map the stars better than I. We will have other north stars between Polaris and Vega. Can you see how our finest fixed points move? Can you hear the chainsaws cutting the forest? Do you need to go somewhere and lie down?
It’s been fifteen years since my grandmother died—fifteen years since I first saw my dad weep. Since then, I’ve seen him cry again—not often, very rarely; but still, he does sob sometimes.
Another forest is falling; can you see it? Would it help if I drew you a picture? I’m afraid I can’t; not of this. It is not all right.
We will come to another north star soon.
I live just outside city limits, down past West Main. You can imagine how it goes: how the road runs through the downtown square and then along the residential district and all those little wooden structures of history in our antebellum town, then how it all tumbles out into a tree-led drive that rolls less-than-straight home past lumber-slat fences and more wood-framed houses. Wood seems strong and unmovable, but I know better. I’ve read how stable stands of timber fall to lumber, how they crack, shake, and collide against the ground. All it takes is one young braggart to bring them down. Still, we construct our homes from beams already fallen and trust them not to fall again, to be stronger this time, to hold against the wind and the rain. We trust wood to not crack, weaken, and come down in the middle of the night, smothering us in our beds. We walk through forests unafraid.
Are we fools for this?
If so, we are no more foolish than the generations of mariners who have aligned their sextants with the north star to find their place on this sphere. They have determined their latitude and checked errors in their gyrocompasses and other navigational equipment against the so-called stability of Polaris. For centuries, they have acted in trust that the star does not move and that earth does not move from it. I am afraid to break the news to them. Will their knees weaken against gravity? Will they need to go somewhere to lie down? I hope they don’t go somewhere made of wood. Wood falls easily, you know.
When earth seems to be spinning too quickly through the star field, and I need something solid; when every tree seems to be coming down and I need something stable; when I am weak and I need someone strong, my father is still the first person I call. There have been times, and there still are times, when he cries with me.
Why do we trust what we know can be moved, fallen, shaken? We trust our direction, we trust our lives, we trust our last ounce of strength to things and people who seem sometimes not very strong at all.
What is strength?
Some Wednesdays, every once and a while, when social isolation doesn’t prohibit it and my class schedule allows it, I go to the midweek service at the Anglican church that meets in one of those little wooden buildings on West Main, where there is never enough parking. There is barely enough space inside for the little congregation to stand between the altar and the chairs. I say the prayers, and dip the bread in the wine, and hear the Good Story one more time. Like so much of life, it is not something I can draw a picture of; it does not seem all right. No, it does not seem all right—that story of a God they call the Morning Star who moved, who left heaven and the sweet by and by for earth, to be cut down by young braggarts, to fall on the beams of a fallen tree, to weep at the side of his friend’s casket. Some call it foolish, I know, but I trust his strength to be sufficient for me.
Thanks be to God.