I’m a teacher with two sick days. That’s a bad enough state to be in when it’s late November and teachers are exhausted, stressed, and frazzled. It’s even worse when you need to have an abscessed tooth pulled.
Fortunately, we have been studying World War II, and there are plenty of World War II movies that relate directly to the GSEs–so my plan was to drive to school and stay there until 8:10, let my husband cover my first class during his planning. and then dash back (sans tooth) by 9:50. Dunkirk was the order of the day, and I would gut my way through with the cooperation of 107 teenagers.
When I left the house, I still wasn’t thrilled–the kitten had stolen a slice of my breakfast bacon, my tooth hurt badly, and the day was cold and gloomy. Still, as I do most days, I stopped before getting in the van and stood in the carport and looked at the pine trees across the road–the sun rises behind them, and some days, the brilliant orange makes it look like they are afire. This morning, they looked as they never had before, the sky a brown misted pink.
The drive to work is four miles through a downtown mostly unchanged over my forty-eight years. I drive past a park named for the great-grandfather I never met; past the empty building that was R & R fabric shop, where Grandma and I spent many hours when I was a child–she visited while I organized the patterns by number in their metal drawers; past the bank-turned-furniture-store, where I took my young second cousins to see the antique safe in the first hours after their grandfather, my uncle, died; past the brick gazebo where my elder daughter had her prom pictures taken on one of her life’s happiest nights.
But these are not the sights that move me. In the fourteen years that I have made that commute–the 2,660 times I have driven that road–it’s the morning sky over the CSX Rice Yard that is my favorite. Mind you, I am neither a morning person nor a joyous soul–so my looking at the sunrise is not Instagram-worthy. It’s more a desultory, at-least-I-have this moment. My consolation for all the else.
Today, there was a patch of blue sky through the gray. Fluffy white clouds peeked beneath the haze, cornflower blue behind. I stopped in a parking lot to take a few pictures–I had often told my daughters, “When I don’t have you guys with me, I’m going to take a picture of the sky here every day”–so, today, I did. But, by the time I stopped–in just those thirty seconds–everything about the sky changed. It was gray.
I drove the last mile unthinkingly. Stopped at the red light beside the high school, I sat listlessly looking at the trees; in the silvery morning light, their leaves were layered in a stony effect– it was as if I were looking at a rock wall made of trees. And then, I heard from deep within, “This is your Israel.”
It was weird, jarring.
Three of my friends have spent the past week in the Middle East–two, married Christian pastors, have been in Israel, and one, celebrating her fiftieth birthday, in Egypt. Their photos have filled my social media with camel rides and tomb visits and distant sunsets. I have viewed these photos with a sort of quiet satisfaction–happy that people whom I have known since my teens are across the world, now far away from rough beginnings and old heartaches. I’ve enjoyed seeing the shine in their eyes and instinctively prayed for their refreshing.
I’ve never wanted to go to Israel or Egypt. I don’t wish I were with there. I haven’t thought about the pictures for even a moment after I pressed the heart or thumbs-up. But there it was, that voice: “This is your Israel.”
Sunlight and rocks and sky and trees.
(And Ware County High School.)
They are my everyday, plain places. Regular and ordinary. But they restore me. I stop to look at them, and on some days, I am refreshed. Like a child running his hands over every spindle on a banister, I pass my touchstones. Are the turtles in the canal on City Boulevard on their log today? Is the sun shining perfectly down on the palm tree centered at the end of Euclid? Are there fluffy clouds in the Big Sky near Reid’s Pasture? Are there wildflowers blooming on the railroad berms? Is the sunset view better from the overpass or from Wal-Mart’s parking lot?
It seems absurd, doesn’t it? To think: the sunset from Wal-Mart is sometimes my Wailing Wall.
In the months after Stephanie Grace was stillborn, I can’t tell you how many times we checked on the canal turtles. We would drive down and sit in the van on the bridge and look down at them, eight turtles on a log, offering us solace simply by their existence, pushing us on. There was just enough beauty in the sight of them–solid and scattered on the log skimming the water–to remind us of Him. Of somewhere, goodness.
I recognize, after my husband’s three cancers, after my granddaughter’s death, that my only hope is in the outdoors–the Drake Elm, the stars over the driveway at night, the feeding of the garage opossum–in these reminders of God.
My little family has been endured much, and we are all in various stages on the journey to repair. We sometimes bravely say “ifs” to each other, almost wishing aloud. On hopeful days, we say “catch a break” as if it is possible. On other, worse days, we find solace in our own healing Israels–the snows of Connecticut, the hills of New York, the pines of Georgia.
When Hurricane Michael brushed past our area, I was home alone. I intended to sleep in the hallway under a table, and when the winds came I wandered outside to watch the trees in our backyard–wanting to see which were holding up, planning to sleep near the sturdiest. I was transfixed by the roar of the wind through the trees, by their swaying silhouettes against the orangey gray sky. I lay in the grass and sang the doxology, something our pastor had done sixteen years ago when my husband was first declared cancer free. It seemed fitting when he did so, and it felt appropriate on that October night, in the face of such majesty.
As the feral cats wandered around me, I lay on a quilt for an hour and sang and prayed and thought about how hard it all is, how hard it continues to be, how unholy I am, how holy and powerful He is. I got neither revelations or relief–we seem to have ordered lives that are without them. No hope sprang anew.
I was just alone in the wind, watching. I was just still, and I knew.