People are always up in the night, with their colicky babies and their sick children, or fighting or worrying or full of guilt. And, of course, the milkmen and all the people on early shifts and late shifts. Sometimes when I walked past the house of one of my own families and saw lights on, I'd think maybe I should stop and see if there was a problem I could help with, but then I'd decide it might be an intrusion and I'd go on. . . . It was on the nights I didn't sleep at all and I didn't feel like reading that I'd walk through town at one or two o'clock. In the old days I could walk down every single street, past every house, in about an hour. I'd try to remember the people who lived in each one, and whatever I knew about them, which was often quite a lot. . . . And I'd pray for them. And I'd imagine peace they didn't expect and couldn't account for descending on their illness or their quarreling or their dreams. Then I'd go into the church and pray some more and wait for daylight. I've often been very sorry to see a night end, even while I have loved seeing the dawn come. (Rev. Ames, in Gilead)
I know this walk. I don't want to sound pious, because I'm not, but on occasion I can walk like Rev. Ames, praying for those around me -- like the elderly lady in the window eating her breakfast alone. I don't even know her or how to pray, but I pray she is not lonely. Or the man who hates children and shot a BB at my cat. I pray for a tender heart, for his memory of being a child, for a generous spirit.
But I can't say these walks are common. Praying, yes, a plenty of that, but mostly on myself. Distracted too, so much so that I cannot remember to praise God for the early birdsongs, for the robins, bluebirds, goldfinch and others I see and hear. But then, serendipitously, I turn a corner and look with new eyes on something I may have seen a hundred times and yet this time see it for the first time it seems.
I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close his eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can't believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don't imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me try. (Rev. Ames, in Gilead)
This walk is bright day with a crisp blue sky overhead, and passing under the branches of a flowering dogwood, I look up and see the thousands of pink blossoms against that blue sky, and in all the years I've walked under that tree, whether bare, or flowering, or green with leaves, I don't think I've ever seen it in that way. I may not ever have looked up since my goal is ahead of me. I think I'll look up more often, I say, and maybe I will, or maybe I'll be as usual, so focused on where my feet are headed that I forget to savor what I see on the way. Isn't that life sometimes? Always trying to get somewhere and missing what happens along the way. Life is what happens along the way.
Life has a blessed particularity about it. It's good to be embodied, to feel the wind on your face, to know what the head of your son or daughter feels like before you even touch it, to remember the smell of your first home, a new car, or your best dog's fur, to feel your feet slapping the ground again and again and again.
I have been thinking about existence lately. In fact, I have been so full of admiration for existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly. (Rev. Ames, in Gilead)
It truly is amazing to be alive, to be breathing and not have to think about how to take the next breath. It just happens. Lots of amazing things happen every second. I just want to see a few of them. That'll be enough for me.
One of my first pastors caught me at the back of the church one time, a far off almost crazy look in his eyes. He grabbed me by the shoulders, looked me in the eyes, and said, "Steve, we need to be living existentially." I hadn't any idea what he meant. I think I get it now.