Living Toward Yes

There is all this untouched beauty
The light the dark both running through me
Is there still redemption for anyone?

-Karin Bergquist

In an earlier post in this series, I hinted at two versions of freedom. Standard contemporary understandings of freedom center on the power to choose among alternatives. A second, older view locates freedom in the giving of consent. Consent freedom doesn’t mean passive acceptance of evil or injustice. These must be named and opposed. Consent freedom involves reckoning with human and earthly limits, living responsibly, and acknowledging we control almost nothing in life save how we respond. It requires constancy in a world where the chief constant is change. It means finding goodness in the shape of what’s given and saying “yes.”

As Wendell Berry writes, “It is hard to make the most of one life. If we each had two lives, we would not make much of either. Or as one of my best teachers said of people in general: ‘They’ll never be worth a damn as long as they’ve got two choices.’”

Taking its title from a heartbreakingly beautiful song by Over the Rhine, the poem below speaks of a life lived as a long, loving act of consent. (The image for this post is by my brother, John.)

Changes Come

(For Karin and Linford)

I climbed here as a boy, past
the boot-worn stairs to these,
rarely-used, rough as the day
they were nailed to the stringer.
I came late afternoons to watch

the blue horizon birth night’s first stars,
stayed till Stan Gusler, the old church caretaker,
bellowed me down and home,
shrieking, My belfry, mine.
His grave’s there, by the far gate.

And that silo, past the tree line
where Schlabach’s pasture ends,
that’s Yoder’s farm, not changed
since Jesus finished grade school.
But the milkweed fields where I chased

Monarchs and Viceroys sprout
ranch homes now, and Sayler’s Crossing
didn’t have that traffic light
till Charlie totaled the ’67 Mustang –
sweetest car that ever was –

while I watched from my banana-seat
stunt bike. Still have a piece of chrome.
Now it’s sight versus memory, and the latter
fading like old folks’ words – ice box,
pony keg, front parlor
– none of them

likely to outlive me. I come here lately
to listen: the tidal buzz of cicadas frenzied
in the maples, the coughing of mowers
and, taken for granted now,
Spanish outside the market at Lee

and Second. It’s right to listen
by a silent bell above an empty church,
feeling the quiver and pulse in these timbers.
Once, when I was twelve, my granddad
showed me the black-hearted stump

of an ash, growth lines rippling back
to another century. Here, he stabbed
with an arthritic finger, twisted
and brittle as mountain laurel, here,
fire scorched the bark. Here, a run

of good, wet years – see how wide?
And here, a long dry spell.
And I almost
saw. But it’s the remembered sound
of his voice, rough as quarry stones
on bare feet, that resurrects him now.

What he saw, I hear. My fingers run
this knobbed and tarnished rim, a bell
scarred by ten thousand changes rung
through the lives of those who heard.
One touch of my finger kindles the music.

In it, you hear them: the dead, I mean –
my dead, alive again and none too keen
on keeping still. They live, stirred
by the unasked-for stirring in us
that wants no form but music.

I told you a half-truth just now; I come
not only to listen. I sing, too,
as the sound-quickened dead still
sing, knowing, as now I know, how
words find themselves in song, become

what my body makes them: the trembling
life makes of me, here, now,
who knows how long? Changes come
in tender loss, terrible beauty,
intimate as lovers, inseparable as breath

from life, honored by our voices.
What’s left to do but climb this bell-house,
throw back my shoulders and sing
to what will come, bidden or unbidden?
Let it come. Here I am. Yes.

From Flesh Becomes Word, by Brian Volck, Dos Madres Press, 2013.

Image: Changes Come, by John Volck, 2013.

And here’s the song that inspired the poem:

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