In his beautiful collection of short stories The Wild Birds, in a moving tale of generosity and adopted family, Wendell Berry writes, “The way we are, we are members of each other. All of us. Everything. The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t.” Berry’s concept of membership is one familiar to his readers: an ideal of interwoven, interpersonal community, a giving and receiving that is the opposite of American culture’s rugged individualism and our current state of isolation.
Normally a voracious reader, in this pandemic season I have read very few new books. A chronic re-reader anyway, I couldn’t bring myself to invest any emotional energy into a story I couldn’t trust; I desperately needed daily reminders of truth and beauty. Bringing my weary soul to Narnia, Middle-Earth, and Port William reminded me again and again that all shall be well and all shall be well . There are, thankfully, many such stories, but the one I couldn’t keep myself from reading over and over this past year was Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay For Now.
Called a “skinny thug” and suspected by all around him of following in the footsteps of his abusive father and delinquent older brothers, Doug Swieteck is a lonely boy with nowhere to be and nowhere to go. Nowhere to go except the library, where he finds himself after moving to a new town his eighth grade year. And there, in the Marysville Free Public Library, Doug is offered grace: an invitation to a membership. Upon seeing the abrasive boy’s fascination with the Arctic Tern in a displayed book of Audubon’s Birds of America, an older librarian gently coaxes Doug into learning to draw, basing each lesson on Audubon’s works.
Each bird, each Saturday art lesson with Mr. Powell, gives Doug a place of retreat, a place to fail safely and then succeed, a way to understand the chaotic world around him: “Maybe this happens to you every day, but I think it was the first time I could hardly wait to show something I’d done to someone who would care besides my mother,” he says. “Do you know how that feels?” Through Mr. Powell’s quiet dignity and respect for Doug, he gives a greater gift than even that of art: he gives Doug an invitation into a community.
Grace, when freely poured out, cannot be contained.Millie Sweeny
True membership does this for each of us, when we are enveloped into a broader body. This gift, we know because of the work of Jesus Christ, is grace. Unasked, unsought, unpayable. And grace, when freely poured out, cannot be contained. In the disciples and apostles of Jesus, this joyful grace changed their ways of seeing, of being human. As it should do for each of us. As it does with Doug. He sees what it means to be human through Audubon’s interpretations of the birds, through his own understanding of being an artist, through the compassion and grace extended to him, and this humanity reaches out from his life to touch those around him, to invite them into membership as well, or to accept their invitations. As his older brothers struggle against the lot set before them, Doug acknowledges their battles with respect: “It’s like the screech of the Black-Backed Gull, crying out into the empty white space around him. You can’t hear it when you look at the picture. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.” When he discovers the traumatic cause of a hated teacher’s anger, Doug stubbornly probes him into accepting help, just as he himself received from Mr. Powell in the library. He understands pain, and grows to understand grace.
A genuine grace, a grace that changes. As it must. Doug deserved none of the grace he was given, could not have grown into maturity and kindness without the guidance of wise and persistent mentors. This is not a story of one boy’s struggle against the world, but the story of a boy pulled along into life by those who saw him drowning. Like us. Dragged along into membership by the Holy Spirit, by the godly friends and mentors placed around us by grace, in grace, for grace. It fills up, and it flows out. So we are given, so we give. Doug’s experience shapes him into a young man of courage for those he loves, of respect and empathy for others; he is emboldened to speak out, deciding that “whatever is in the dark is waiting for the Yellow Shank, he’s going to do it anyway.” He is given much, and he gives much.
In a season of isolation, where membership and church community and long-time friends feel like a bygone dream, I needed this story. More than once. And now, as we continue in a season of unrest that more closely resembles the anguished Black-Backed Gull than the daring Yellow Shank, I need it still: reminders of how empty are our lives without one another, how poor we are without the gifts of art and literature and friendship. Go read Berry’s The Wild Birds, of course, but alongside it, read Schmidt’s Okay For Now. Recipients of a vast and unasked for grace, all of us. In need of, and given, truth and beauty and belonging in the holy brotherhood of Christ. So we, too, may become what the Brown Pelican is. And even more.