Man is born to suffering as the sparks fly upward.Even though Walhydra's suffering had been, till then, mostly of the generic teen sort—or, more accurately, the generic teen-closeted-sissy-boy-but-doesn't-know-it-yet sort—she thought that just knowing that verse made her feel somehow more mature.
A few teen years later, Walhydra stumbled onto poet Archibald MacLeish's modern version of Job, J.B. Fascinated by a performance of the play, she devoured the script and memorized a key verse which just leapt out at her.
The line is spoken early in the play by Nickles (“Old Nick” aka Satan) to Mr. Zuss (God):
Granted, this verse is the beginning of Nickles’ cynical challenge to Zuss to let him torment J.B. And, granted, Walhydra didn't actually believe its despairing message.
I heard upon his dry dung heap
That man cry out who cannot sleep:
"If God is God He is not good,
If God is good He is not God;
Take the even with the odd,
I would not sleep here if I could,
Except for the little green leaves in the wood
And the wind on the water."
Nonetheless, she recited the line to herself throughout her college years, as if it posed a challenge to her that her own adolescent faux-cynicism wasn’t yet up to understanding.
Looking back on this verse decades later, Walhydra now recognizes that the problem it speaks to has, in fact, driven her spiritual puzzlement for much of her life.
"It just doesn't work for me to believe that God (or Goddess, or Whatever…) causes suffering. Or even that He/She allows it.
"I know that doesn’t make any sense," she equivocates. "But the only evil I see done is done by human beings."
"So why doesn't God stop evil?" she imagines the gentle reader asking. "Why does God let anyone hurt or kill innocent people?"
Walhydra pauses. "Why does God let a hawk kill an innocent mouse or a tsunami kill thousands of innocent human beings?"
"That's not the same."
"It's not?" says Walhydra, amused to find herself playing the Socratic role which Goddess usually plays opposite her.
Although she can't pretend to be wise or enlightened—well, actually, she pretends both all the time—Walhydra has somehow come to understand that human beings are mortal, just like other animals.
And that suffering just happens. Not as punishment. Not as fate. Just as part of the mechanics of being mortal.
"I don't mean that we shouldn't care about suffering. That we shouldn't avoid or try to prevent suffering for ourselves and others."
She glances about warily, feeling somewhat awkward about channeling Goddess.
"I just mean that it happens anyway."
Or, as a Zen precept she often quotes says:
RenunciationSo...somewhere between the theist Jew's sparks flying upward and the nontheist Buddhist's things going away, last week on the New Moon, Walhydra called her mother, Senior Witch, early in the morning.
is not about giving up
the things of the world,
that they go away.
The faithful reader will remember that Senior Witch had relocated to the home of Walhydra's sister in Pensacola, Florida, back on St. Padric's Day. Alzheimer's was making it unsafe for her to continue her independent, self-sufficient life in her home of forty-some years.
"I'm okay, but I'm feeling homesick," Senior Witch says, reciting the line with which she now begins every phone call.
Walhydra is feeling more than usually connected this morning, so she says without even pausing, "Yes, Mom. I think homesickness is just going to be a part of your life from now on."
There's a momentary silence.
"There's no way to feel good about losing your friends and church and neighbors back in South Carolina," Walhydra continues boldly. "I wonder who your new neighbors are?"
This gets a bit of exploratory conversation going.
The problem is that Senior Witch has declining hours of lucidity, declining hours when she can retain the mental focus and energy of an adult. That means even the best ideas—even the ones she embraces with enthusiasm when Walhydra shares them—fade into wishful thinking or forgetfulness before she can act.
What's left, Walhydra recognizes sadly, is to give her mother moments of affirmation or hope. Moments which Senior Witch will relish—and then forget.
"Mom?" Walhydra continues. "You remember that my brother drove down from Massachusetts to meet me in Columbia last week?"
"Well, he got there a day before me to clean your whole house from top to bottom, to get it ready to sell."
"And—" A lump starts in Walhydra's throat. "And he told me that it didn't feel at all like an empty house. It still felt like a warm, lived in home. Your home."
Walhydra is well into Quaker vocal ministry by now, saying things she hasn't even thought of.
"So...you have the sadness of having left your home behind. But you have left behind a home, not just an empty house, for the next family to move into."
"Oh. Oh. I'm so glad you told me that!"
"I thought it was important for you to know."
Recalling that exchange tonight, near midnight on Summer Solstice a week later, Walhydra suspects that Senior Witch may not even remember it. She knows that she will repeat her brother's message whenever she can work it into conversation.
And the line about homesickness.
And the line about new neighbors.
Like any adult, trying through repetition to reassure a child that the world is safe—even glorious, even wondrous!—to live in, with little green leaves in the wood and wind on the water.
Even though the sparks fly upward and we can't avoid having things go away and we all die.
This doesn't feel very good to Walhydra right now.
But it's not God's fault.
It just is.
And so it is.