"I should be able to describe a patch of ground so faithfully that you would know it if you came upon it. . . and could traverse it if you had to, with no hazard to your life. To do less for the interior landscape of a woman or man or child, or the pitfalls the world presents to them, is irresponsible."
(Larry Woiwode, in "Homeplace: Heaven or Hell," collected in Words Made Fresh)
Elsewhere Woiwode writes that writers "should expect to give an account, according to a teaching of Jesus, for every idle word that comes out of our mouths" (his emphasis). It makes you want to stop writing, for that matter, when you begin to think of the responsibility attached to words --- for that matter, stop preaching, stop teaching, stop talking. In an economy where words are cheap, where expression is profligate, Woiwide's scary words are a good wake up call to responsibility, and I am convicted.
Until I was about four I lived in a small, one story, cookie cutter house in a Greensboro suburb thrown up in the boom following World War II. There was a patch of rutted grass in the front and a small hill, and then another patch of fescue and crabgrass and dandelions in the back, and then another hill, with a chain link fence at our property line and a swimming pool manufacturer on the other side. I looked longingly through that fence at a concrete-lined and empty demonstration pool. The fence represented the edge of my world; the pool, adventure. I could not leave my yard, play in the street, go unescorted to a neighbor's house. My life was bounded, carefully controlled, limited by loving parents who held me responsible for where my feet took me. That was my patch of ground. It was a topography shaped by love. It was a frame in which a settled longing developed: I loved home, I wondered, I longed to push past the boundaries, I loved home --- an ever-widening circle of longing. It was my patch of ground, but I was looking out, full of hope for what was to come.
Woiwode says our hope of the heavenly city, the place we long for, should not "dislocate us from our homework on earth." Never has homework been given such a positive and yet sober connotation. We have things to do, good things.
At yet at four my homework was simple. Play here, not there; brush your teeth; keep your hands to yourself; don't talk to strangers; do look at people's eyes when you speak to them; go to sleep; say your prayers; use a napkin. Behave.
But at 53, homework is a challenge. I try and say a faithful word, and I sense the tug of ego. Self rears its head, and even here, as I try and speak of it, I wonder if my even naming it will accrue to my benefit. It's laughable! Garrison Keillor, a frustrated poetry judge at one juncture, said "self expression is not what it's about, people!" What he went on to say was that writers should write about the universals, about the particulars that might actually resonate with people --- not to emote on paper, try to impress, call attention to yourself, show off.
I'm a long way from the cookie-cutter house, leagues from the clarity of my parents' rules. The homework is complicated, full of permutations and combinations, thorny word problems and moral dilemmas. Full of too much me. When Woiwode speaks of idle words I first point the finger at politicians, talk-show hosts, news commentators, and even (sadly) some preachers, but the wagging finger ultimately points back at me, accuses me of thoughtless words, puffed up words, carefully constructed sounds that only say "Look at me. Aren't I clever?"
But we don't have time to navel-gaze about motive, to question every turn of phrase and every good deed. Let's face it: We are people of impure motives. But we have our homework that must be done, nonetheless, for love or for duty. I have my patch of ground, and I have to describe it. It's part of my homework, and there are no crib notes.
The name of the street I lived on? I have to laugh. It was Idlewood. A warning, a challenge, a promise --- to the me to come. To the day when no word will be impure or idle.