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What Choice Have I?
Thoughts on everyday Advents.
What Choice Have I?
by Rachel Donahue
Originally published in Beyond Chittering Cottage: Poems of Place by Bandersnatch Books. Used with permission of the author.
The light is waning, fleeting, fading Tucking, ducking, hiding away. I chase the sunbeams with my gaze, Beholding, holding on to day. But night is coming, quickly falling, Hastening to the dulling gray Where colors flee and glimmers give their Selves up to the darkened sway. Blackness closes, covers, hovers, Casting every sight away Until my stifled, muffled breaths Come laboring under the weight. Alone in silence, ringing ears My fears of darkness do replay As my heart races, gallops, paces Panic on its path astray. Alone, I’m certain — I’m alone here Fighting through the disarray. Muster courage — must trust for courage — But strength has left me to decay. I sit and breathe, resigned to wait — To sit and wait, though fears assay. What choice have I? My course of flight Is swallowed up in tenebrae. But in the silent, lonely darkness Sighs a breath that might betray A knowing, longing, loving song On lips that smile to speak my name. With blood-strained eyes I search and tremble, Looking for a lighted way, But what I see are torch and fire pot: Presence — here is my Yahweh.
If I understand folks rightly, there are really only two seasons here in Minnesota: winter, and nearly-winter. At least, this is what I often gather from the doom-laden comments I hear sometimes as early as May. I’ve never gotten on the bandwagon, myself: I love wintertime. I grew up in Oregon in the scenic Willamette Valley where we actually had to dream of a white Christmas (it wasn’t assured us), and where a light dusting of snow set the angels rejoicing on high — not to mention school children below — for unto us a snow day had come. To this day falling snow thrills me with a kind of peaceful excitement.
I am incurably nostalgic, and this time of year brings waves of sweet remembrances crashing into waves of hopes and dreams. This can be a beautiful thing, but I’ve found the seas of nostalgia can also be dangerous to swim in. In my own case it’s easy to turn quickly from more innocent wonderings (“Where has all the time gone?”) to feelings of inadequacy (“When will I catch up and start to feel purposeful?”). The sense that I’ve somehow missed the boat in life is a familiar one to me — a demon I have wrestled before and surely will again.
I had intended to share this post during Advent, what with the ready backdrop of darkening days and the liturgical underpinnings of God’s silence before Christ was born. However, I was waylaid by the comings and goings of the Christmas season and a nasty bug that put me on the couch for a short time. And I found myself even in this feeling a pang of failure, as though I’d lost my only opportunity (the perfect one — how could I!) to share this poem. But now here beyond Advent and Christmas, Epiphany impending, I think the timing’s worked itself out. Here’s what I mean.
I’ve come to appreciate the Advent season more and more over the years for the preparation of the heart for Christ it encourages. It’s a wonderful time of relearning to wait, helped and deepened by that peaceful excitement of snowfall (here in Minnesota, at least). But the word “advent” means more than just “an approach.” It also connotes arrival.
We celebrate Christ’s having come at Christmas, and because of this we can also revel in his active coming into the grit and messiness of our lives. After all, we serve a God who is with us “to the very end of the age.”1 He is with us, yes, and he moves toward us. Pursues us. Meets us in our mires. These meetings, then, are advents of their own: arrivals of the divine within the temporal.2 But this makes them epiphanies too: showings and shinings forth, the flaming out of light within the darkness and of the eternal within the finite,3 moments of clarity amidst confusion.
And therein lies the redemption of my unnecessary panic over timing: Rachel S. Donahue’s “What Choice Have I?” is a deeply personal (and thereby deeply resonant) reflection on Genesis 15 and God’s presence within dark times. It is the true tale of an advent. I’m often in need of a good shaking loose from the mental ruts I fall into, as when I’m stuck in cyclical thoughts of inadequacy. I need to be reminded of the truth of things, and so often well-wrought and truthful language is exactly what is needed for that reminding and that shaking loose. I’m thankful to those working to convey things rightly with their words, as Rachel does in this poem.
“What Choice Have I?” conveys the poignant sense of chasing fading sunbeams and “holding on to day” when the light seems to be “hiding away.” Rachel’s words validate the experience of feeling “alone in silence” and “left to decay” — the phrase “swallowed up in tenebrae” beautifully captures that sense I’ve known of slowly slipping down the wrong stair of nostalgia into the dank well at its bottom, conjuring almost claustrophobic images of the extinguishing of light and the increase of darkness. But despite the seeming hopelessness of the imagery, there is an even more tangible hope: I am not alone — we are not alone —
[For] in the silent, lonely darkness
Sighs a breath that might betray
A knowing, longing, loving song
On lips that smile to speak my name.
There is a voice that calls out to us, and not from out of the darkness into it, but from “in the silent, lonely darkness”: “Presence — here is my Yahweh.”
We are not alone, whatever we might feel. This is an invaluable reminder for me: that the struggle, even the mundanity of the present moment can be beautiful and sufficient; that I am not alone in my wrestlings and my restlessness. Though my knee-jerk reaction to pain is to look and strain for a “lighted way” out, Rachel’s poem stands as a reminder that even in the lonely dark there is a presence with me, and a good one. We have succor, and a helper.
I am reminded also of a powerful scene from The Book of the Dun Cow in which the Dun Cow, a mysterious Holy-Spirit-like figure, meets Lord Chauntecleer the rooster whose children have just died. The scene is worth reproducing here, and I’d encourage you to read it out loud if you’re in a space where you can.
“O my sons!” Chauntecleer suddenly wailed at the top of his lungs, a light flaring before it goes out: “How much I want you with me!”
The dark land everywhere held still, as if on purpose before such a ringing, echoing cry. The dark sky said nothing. The Rooster, with not an effort to save himself, sagged, rolled down the roof, slipped over the edge of the Coop, and fell heavily to the ground. Wind and sobs together were knocked out of him; he lay dazed.
And then it was that the Dun Cow came to him.
She put her soft nose against him, to nudge him into a more peaceful position. Gently she arranged his head so that he might clearly see her. Her sweet breath went into his nostrils, and he assumed that he woke up; but he didn’t move. The Dun Cow took a single step back from the Rooster, then, and looked at him.
Horns strangely dangerous on one so soft stood wide away and sharp from either side of her head.
Her eyes were liquid with compassion — deep, deep, as the earth is deep. Her brow knew his suffering and knew, besides that, worlds more. But the goodness was that, though this wide brow knew so much, yet it bent over his pain alone and creased with it.
Chauntecleer watched his own desolation appear in the brown eyes of the Cow, then sink so deeply into them that she shuddered. Her eyes pooled as she looked at him. The tears rose and spilled over. And then she was weeping even as he had wept a few minutes ago — except without the anger. Strangely, Chauntecleer felt an urge to comfort her; but at this moment he was no Lord, and the initiative was not in him. A simple creature only, he watched — felt — the miracle take place. Nothing changed: The clouds would not be removed, nor his sons returned, nor his knowledge plenished. But there was this. His grief had become her grief, his sorrow her own. And though he grieved not one bit less for that, yet his heart made room for her, for her will and wisdom, and he bore the sorrow better.
The Dun Cow lay down next to the Rooster and spent the rest of the night with him. She never spoke a word, and Chauntecleer did not sleep. But for a little while they were together.4
Happy advents, everyone. I hope you see many in the new year. In the darkness is a “loving song / On lips that smile to speak [your] name.” The light has come; is coming; comes.
Matthew 28:20 (NIV).
Malcolm Guite, Waiting on the Word: A Poem a Day for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany (London, UK: Canterbury Press, 2015), ix-x.
Walt Wangerin Jr., The Book of the Dun Cow (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1978), 125-126.