It’s pretty rare that I ever get into anything truly personal here.
Family and the issues we face are usually dealt with in a funny or poignant way (at least that’s what I hope), which can sometimes give the impression that we in the mountains have this business of living down pat. I’m about to buck that trend.
The past month or so has been pretty hard on our family. I’ve had loved ones in the hospital for the flu and another whose body has all but given up. The word “cancer” has gone from being whispered about in private company to being acknowledged at the kitchen table. It’s been a trying time, a scary time—the sort of thing you start thinking only adults should have to handle and maybe you aren’t as much of an adult as you thought.
It’ll all be okay, of course.
The days will right themselves. It isn’t lost to me that everything I’m feeling is considered old news to a great swath of folks. Life’s only given is that we must all pass from it. Nothing of this world is made to be permanent, which is a lesson that comes early on in the Appalachian foothills. Things wear out, get tired and used up. Crops and seasons both rise up and bloom before being cut down. Our woods are filled with forgotten graves and the foundations of old homes left now to hold only memories and ghosts. Even these mountains, tall and solid as they are, wear away with the eons a millimeter at a time.
I know this. You know this. And yet they remain the hardest words to speak and hear:
each of us were born for leaving.
From an early age I was raised with the knowledge that each of us hold two parts—one temporary, the other eternal. Our shell of bone and muscle will decay at some point, freeing that holy spark within us to burn bright elsewhere. My mother’s parents drilled this into my head often, as the Amish usually do—all this world is for is getting us ready for the next. George MacDonald once said that “We should have taught more carefully than we have done, not that men are bodies and have souls, but that they are souls and have bodies.” My grandparents would have agreed.
But somewhere between the ages of nine and forty-four I seem to have forgotten that knowledge, or at least set it aside. Those thirty years or so had the opposite effect by convincing me life was a solid thing, wholly predictable, and if not permanent then at least long-lasting. There were reminders of otherwise along the way. My grandparents died. Several high school friends. I remember holding my daughter when she was born and my son a few years later and feeling a mix of awe and terror at how fragile and easily broken they were. Then all of that went away again, muddled by passing years which held nothing but the same old, the everyday.
Until this past month. These last weeks. Until the time came when the thin curtain over my life and my family’s lives was eased back a bit to reveal the truth on the other side. That’s why I decided to buck a trend with this post, because the truth I’ve seen is one we should all start holding a little closer to the heart—we don’t ever get stronger. Not really. We come into this world children, and I think that’s how we stay. We can pretend otherwise. We can lean on our intelligence and the strength of our bodies, we can seek shelter in the things we collect and the jobs we have and the dreams we count upon, but we’re still kids. Still fragile. Still easily broken.
Still sure to wear out.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve started paying a little more attention to that spark within us all. To the soul. It’s the one thing of us the ground cannot one day claim, the fire burning ever upward, pointing us on.