It was the first Sunday of Lent, and the revelations came fast and furious.
It started with Sunday school in the parlor at First Presbyterian, where we were studying the book of Matthew. (Endlessly intriguing, that book. Anybody who thinks the Bible is boring should check it out.) We talked about forgiveness, mainly. How difficult it is, how crucial, and how God requires it over and over again. “Seventy times seven,” and all that.
Apparently, you can’t be forgiven unless you forgive. (“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”) And it’s not because God is mean, or playing some game of tit for tat, or even withholding grace. According to theologian NT Wright – our guide through Matthew – it’s because forgiveness is like air in your lungs. You have to release it in order to inhale it. If you hold your breath indefinitely – if you never exhale – you can’t take in any more air. The same goes for forgiveness. If you hold a grudge in your heart – if you can’t let it go through the act of forgiveness – when you, yourself, need forgiveness, you won’t be able to receive it. You’ll have nowhere to put it. No room in your heart.
I thought about that as I drove out to St. Helena Island right after Sunday school, windows down, gulping in the warm, marshy air, and breathing it back out again. I was skipping church – and, sadly, Communion – in order to commune with nature, after first making a quick visit to Memorial Gardens cemetery to commune with my old friend and mentor, Pat Conroy.
It was March 6th, and I was headed to March Forth, the annual commemoration of Pat’s death (March 4th, 2016) at Penn Center. I was looking forward to walking (and talking) with nature writers Drew Lanham and Janisse Ray, two of the day’s headliners.
First came the walking, as they led a large group of us through the wooded grounds of Penn toward the water.
Drew Lanham’s a slow walker – “I never promise aerobics,” he laughed, walking backwards, facing the crowd – and he stopped frequently to tell a story, listen to a bird call, or draw a connection between the past and the present.
“Did Dr. King recognize the call of the yellow-rumped warbler, or the Carolina chickadee, when he walked this path?” Drew wondered. “I have no idea, but I like to think he did.” He spoke to us of Harriet Tubman’s heroism, and the 10,000 slaves on St. Helena Island, and the way nature makes different people feel different ways, depending on their background and experience.
“Some people might look at that big oak tree over there and think about a wooden swing hanging from that branch,” he said. “Others might think about the way people were once hung from trees in the South.”
I’m not always comfortable when somebody talks to me like that, especially in the golden spring sunlight under a perfect sky when I’m just trying to see some birds. But I also know that comfort’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
And Drew did talk about birds – that’s his specialty – and how they’ve been inspiring people to dream of freedom and hold onto hope for centuries. Sometimes, he didn’t say a word, and we just walked, looked, and listened, consulting our “feel guide,” as he called it.
Later, after a wonderful lunch (shout out to Debbi Covington!) Janisse and Drew sat on the stage and talked about writing, and why they do it.
Drew said he writes out of “longing.” A longing to establish respect in his readers… for place, identity, and nature. Again, he didn’t skirt the hard talk. He spoke of environmental justice, of “recognition, reconciliation, and reparation” . . . and how they have to happen in that order. For Drew, there is no line between nature and culture. They are infinitely and inextricably entwined.
Janisse said she started as a nature writer some 25 years ago, writing out of a sense of hope. Hope that her words would change things, would make people see the natural world more closely and care about it more deeply. Then change.
Today, she no longer feels so hopeful. Approaching 60, she wonders how best to use her remaining days. She wonders if books – or even words – can really make a difference.
Drew asked, “So, if you’re no longer writing out of hope, what are you writing for?”
Janisse threw her head back, her long, silvering hair falling over her shoulders, and pondered the ceiling for a minute.
Her answer was “love.”
“I think we have to figure out how to fall in love with ourselves, each other, and the world around us again,” she said.
She talked about the little girl she and her husband adopted at the age of eight. (Their daughter is now 18.) The child had had a rough start and suffered from detachment disorder. She’d never bonded with her biological mother. So Janisse and her husband had to find ways to bond with the girl… to love her and help her love them. Though she’s now doing well, it was a challenge.
Janisse believes we’ve all been detached from our Mother – the Earth – for so long now that we, too, have detachment disorder. Because we’re detached from Mother Nature, we can’t love properly. We can’t love the natural world, we can’t love each other, and we can’t love ourselves.
“We have to figure out how to love harder,” she said. “So love is the only answer I have to your question.”
Again, the question was: “Why do you write?”
It’s a question I frequently ask myself, and Janisse Ray’s answer brought tears of recognition to my eyes.
Discussing climate change, she asked the audience, almost desperately, “Since we all know what’s happening, and we all know what we need to do about it, why aren’t our leaders doing it?”
I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs: Because plenty of people – including our leaders – DON’T know. Or they don’t believe, anyway. And they don’t trust the people who do. And just like everybody here, they only talk amongst themselves anymore. Our media-driven political discourse has so divided us, so blinded us, and filled us with so much distrust and hatred for our fellow Americans, that we’re paralyzed on this issue . . . like so many others.
But I sat quietly, loath to disturb the mood, the righteous vibe among good-hearted, like-minded people. I would save my own “hard talk” for this page, where, believe it or not, I, too, write out of love, longing, and the pain of detachment disorder.