Sunday, December 04, 2005

"My Business is to Love"—
Some Uncommon Women

Today I spoke with two old friends—Jan and Ada. One of my favorite things about this time of year—the annual holiday season—is the chance I get to catch up on the lives of dear friends who, for whatever reason, have wandered out of my radar field of regular correspondence and communication. My friend Jan and I have a long history together and even though a number of months might pass between us, we pick up right where we left off without missing a beat.

At the end of our nearly two-hour phone conversation, Jan and I calculated the length of our friendship at twenty-one years. We met when I was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. We attended the same church where the pastor, the Reverend Wayne Rogers, was a man well known in the community for his compassion and commitment to social issues. Jan was one of the longtime church members. In those days I gravitated toward non-students, persons who had ties to the community, and professional rather than student lives. My family lived faraway in California and I was, no doubt, craving the security and stability they would have offered had they been closer.

Each Sunday Pastor Wayne gave people in the church an opportunity to share concerns, prayer requests, and announcements. Jan could be counted on to express gratitude for something God had revealed to her during the week, or request prayers for somebody in the midst of trouble or despair. I remember thinking to myself as I observed her with admiration, "She's such a pillar of strength." To this day, we still joke about it. She is my pillar, and I never let her forget it.

A few moments ago, I got off the phone with my friend Ada who celebrated her 82nd birthday today. Ada lives about three hours from Washington in a small Pennsylvania town. We met fourteen years ago shortly after I moved to Washington from California. In no time at all we were close friends. Ada shares my love of poetry and reading. She introduced me to authors and poets I'd never read. We discovered a mutual appreciation for the quintessential American poets Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Ada and I share a friendship that is the embodiment of the term "kindred spirits."

Every Sunday, with a few exceptions, Ada and I speak on the phone. Sometimes we'll talk more frequently, but we've reserved time together on Sunday night. Often she'll call me from her warm bed and I know our phone conversation is the last event of her day before she prays and drifts off to sleep. We've both come to count on our conversations, which often include me reading book reviews, newspaper articles, and a poem or two.

I have often described Jan and Ada, and our literary friend Emily Dickinson, as "uncommon women," borrowing the term from the title of one of playwright Wendy Wasserstein's early plays. Jan and Ada prize their individuality. Ada, a Mennonite, lives on the periphery of our popular culture. She's aware of trends but doesn't submit to them. Jan lives similarly. Each of these extraordinary women lives her life counter to the prevailing cultural attitude of "wanting the maximum." Instead they seek the minimum.

Emily, too, subscribed to this policy of minimalism. By that I mean a respect for life, an appreciation for—and celebration of—the earth's natural resources, and a willingness, in fact a desire, to give rather than to take. Like Emily, Jan and Ada make the claim, "my business is to love." And they demonstrate that maxim exquisitely.

Ada and I finished tonight's conversation by sharing three poems. They were her birthday requests and I include them here.

When You Are Old by William Butler Yeats

WHEN you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Hope is the Thing with Feathers by Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chilliest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Reproduction of daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson, National Portrait Gallery. Emily Dickinson was born on Decemeber 10, 1830. She spent life with her family in Amherst, Massachusetts. She nurtured her friendships through a prolific correspondence, as she rarely left her home. She died on May 15, 1886.