24 December 2011

A Precious Sadness

At long last, Christmas Eve is a day of calm (even if the evening is full of work).  Our children are grown, so the mystery play of Santa is no longer necessary.  Our material needs and wants are few, so the task of buying and wrapping is smaller.  As the morning moves toward noon I have an island of serenity that allows me to write this. 

So why am I sad?  Not heaving sorrow, mind you, but a sort of bruised tenderness.  Maybe it was catching a movie on cable TV by accident early this morning, “October Sky,” which was ok enough as a story.  The plot and theme are commonplaces now among ‘inspiring movies.’  What might have stayed with me, though, was the setting, West Virginia. 

At various times I have traveled through that place.  Each time I felt a profound sadness amid the stirring beauty of the land.  Nothing quite explains it, but there are notes of resignation and regret in it, caught in the aroma of decaying trees and coal.  Something about the hardscrabble landscape tears right through my eyes and into my heart, a reality that gets covered over by civilization and its false contents.  To be that real, that true, even if it hurts, feels right to me. 

This sort of sadness, born of my visits there and to other portions of the Appalachian hills, is precious.  I do not want it to go away.  Most of the time we want to get rid of sadness, but this kind is precious, somehow to be treasured.

My Facebook page this morning is dotted with people wanting and feeling that magical Christmas sensation, perhaps as a way to connect with a remembered childhood time when the world shimmered with a kind of intensity that tarnishes to dull predictability as we age.  For me, though, the usual Christmas magic feels more false than real.  Angels and shepherds and stars and flying sleighs obscure the shimmer of the world as it truly is. 

Give me young women with rough hands and old men with sparkling eyes, the terrible swift beauty of mountain streams and the smell of pine and hickory smoke.  Keep your angelic choirs and let me hear the sound of the baby cry and the song of the mother soothing it.  Is this not magic, that in a world so hard we still believe life is worth it? 

I crave the broken hearted tenderness that old hills and tired houses and worn lives call up, the sort of world my ancestors knew, the sort of world Galilean peasants two thousand years long ago lived in and through. 


Anonymous said...

"I crave the broken hearted tenderness that old hills and tired houses and worn lives call up, the sort of world my ancestors knew, the sort of world Galilean peasants two thousand years long ago lived in and through."
Thank you for the nostalgia. I,too, have felt the tug of rememberances of "Olden Days" only to remember the hard scrabble, grinding poverty, and the disparity of income when nostalgia tugs too hard.It was a hard life, but the holidays always meant there was something to look forward to...Like the promise of a child which would bring peace and justice to all. Happy Holidays to all of you!

ldeg said...

I remember this tone from the West Virginia story, based on your imaginings driving through on the interstate, that you told from the pulpit your first year in Austin. There is a long legacy of social workers and missionaries come to save Appalachia, a region of great cultural variety named as an entity by those outsiders. We were both the noble mountaineers, always free, preserving the pioneer culture and values in the sanctity of the mountains, or depraved and inbred, people left behind and in need of being saved. We are neither and we are not Other.

Poverty in West Virginia or anywhere else in Appalachia is no more tender than on a reservation, in the Rio Grande Valley, Baltimore, or Grand Rapids. And West Virginia is no more the world your ancestors, or mine (two hundred and fifty years worth who lie buried here), knew, than any of those places.

We are indeed a place of great natural beauty. We are also a place of coal mines and chemical plants, steel mills, glass and china factories, and lumbering. We are the Bureau of the Public Debt, the FBI White Collar Crime Center, and NASA, plastics, pharmaceuticals, wind turbines. We still have more small farms than anywhere, but we are not a romantically decaying landscape resigned and regretful but somehow more authentic.

Here is a poem by a guy just up the ridge from me that I think captures this year's Christmas spirit:

WFW said...

lovely poem. And in fact my great grandmother Samantha Martha Marker was a native of Winchester, when it was still just Virginia.