2017-07-12
My name is Velma Brendle, and I live in Leeway, Kansas. That's in the southeast corner of the state, not far from Oklahoma or Missouri. You might know where Leeway is if you were related to someone here or if your car broke down here when you were headed somewhere else. Otherwise, you'll go the length of your life without ever paying us a visit. We don't mind that as much as you might think. A lot of people are meant to go into the bigger world, and they grow up in a place like Leeway and leave it when they're grown. We see them packing up, and we say that

But some of us belong in Leeway or some other such town. Our lives are full of loved ones and a landscape that's old and that belongs to us. I sit under an oak tree in my back yard that my grandmother planted. Our family has cared for this tree through all kinds of seasons, splinting it after lightening struck and treating it for bagworms. I wouldn't say that I own the tree, but we do have a connection. It's important to me, as silly as that might sound to someone who has moved around a lot and lived in different places. Some of us just aren't meant to move. We're for staying and caring for things and keeping track and preserving the photographs and clippings that long-lost cousins or grandchildren will need in another thirty or forty years, coming back to Leeway to sell Mom's house or look for somebody's baptismal record. I'm proud to be one who stays. A lot of people in Leeway feel that way.

It's not a very big town-barely more than twelve hundred people. There's not a lot of money here. Portions of it are pure trailer park. But other parts are old and tree-lined and deep with color. My block is shaded almost completely by oaks and maples-sturdy, tall ones that also shaded the town's families three generations ago. Most months of the year, my back yard is cool and sun-dappled.

For thirteen years, I've operated Leeway's only real restaurant. It's six blocks from my house, down Pickins Street. On top of that, I janitor at Jerusalem Baptist Church, where I am also a member. The janitor job requires only a few hours a week, but it fills a need in my life. The sanctuary, with its high ceiling and tall, frosted windows, has always been a soothing place, especially during the afternoon when I'm the only one there. The cleaning doesn't feel like work, just something to keep my hands and eyes busy while my soul is doing other things. The windows let in light, but any objects or people outside are only shadows going by. I can't see them, and they can't see me. It's a good arrangement. Even during worship services, it's nice to have the light but not the distractions. Pickins is one of the main streets in town, and there's always some little drama going by. As it is, a good many Sunday mornings we can hear Maria Dalmazio calling for her cat, Theo. We can tell by the different pitches of her voice that she's walking up the street and calling, then turning around and walking the opposite direction and calling a little louder. As if she didn't know that silly cat would come home when it was good and ready. We just chuckle and go on worshipping. But if the windows were clear, don't you know we'd be craning our necks to see her go back and forth.

I have believed in Jesus nearly my whole life. That's not to say that I understand him much. I do trust him more than I used to. But it still bothers me that after all these years, Jesus hasn't offered an opinion or an explanation about my fevers and dreams. Some prayers you pray, and you really know the answer, but you just need some encouragement. Other prayers just take you toward questions and discomfort. I don't understand why this is so. But I've tried to build the habit of giving my fevers to the Lord. Some things you know you can't control anyway.

But these days I'm feeling at ordinary times the way I used to feel during fevers. Dizzy and slow and struggling to understand as scenes appear in front of me. Life itself has become a complicated dream, and I want more and more to slip out of it and find all the people who have drifted up into the chilly blue air.

I suppose I know why it seems that everything important has slipped out of my grasp. A lot of bad things have happened lately. In fact, the past two years have tried Leeway's people to the end of their resources. I've watched people lose important things, and it's made me shut my lips tight and fret against God. It's made me wonder what could be so important about pain that it should visit-so often and so freely-the people I love.

I may never understand, truly, the events that hurt all of us so. But I've decided that life has patterns, and those patterns repeat themselves. They don't go the same way twice, but the same ten or twenty lessons keep working their way out. It seems that, over the past few years, lessons about death and loss just kept repeating, like the chorus of a bad hymn, the kind with a clunky rhythm and odd words and an unlovely melody that plays through your mind for days afterward.

If my husband Albert were here, he'd say that I'll make myself crazy, thinking over events again and again, wondering what else I could have done. "You don't rule life and death," he'd say. That's Albert for you. I think men just naturally rise up from their hurts and defeats and move on. I suppose I never was good at letting go. Partly it's my personality. But partly it's my faith. I grew up expecting a lot from God. And, truth be told, this past year or so I've felt that God didn't come through as he should have. What a thing to wrestle with. How does a person get over it?

I've never considered myself a fanatic, just a serious Christian. But sometimes you come to understand a thing in a way you never have before. And it doesn't make much sense, but you know it's absolutely true. You can't prove that it's true. You can't sit people down and explain it so that they're just as convinced as you are. But the thing is truer than your own name. And when that kind of knowledge comes to you, you're responsible to accept it and believe it. It's yours-you didn't ask for it, but it's yours-and Heaven's watching to see what you do with it.

Well, I feel a revelation coming on. I think the Lord is working out an extra big pattern here. I've never felt so strange for so many days at a time, with or without fever. And I can't help but believe that before long, I'm going to wake up, and something important will have taken place. For now, I just need to pay attention.

I haven't talked with my pastor about this. I know already that he wouldn't have much to say. Preachers tend not to talk about the private part of faith-the part that's separate from sermons or Scripture or traditions. What's in the center of another person's soul is something a pastor just doesn't know. And if he can't teach it with authority, then he'll stay clear away from it. Probably just as well.

I'm on my sun porch, and the morning is quiet. The aroma of autumn has slipped into the breezes. It's rained recently, and my little town is so full and fertile that you would think it was early spring, the air green and yellow and reflecting off the late summer trees, which have not yet burst into fiery colors. The streets are so still that I can hear Don Bradley talking to his son from all the way down the block. They're deciding whether or not to chop down that big old cedar.

For just a second I imagined that I heard my old neighbors, Doris and her daughter Shellye. So many times that kitchen window has been open and I could hear Doris buttering her toast, raking a knife across it again and again, usually after she'd been up half the night walking up and down the street, trying to smoke away another nervous spell.

I feel the peace around me this morning, and I try to reason with myself. I wonder why I can't let go of my sorrows. I don't know why events that are in the past can still have such a terrible hold on me.

But one evening last week I was dusting the bookshelves of the attic bedroom, the room that was my grandmother's, and I remembered a bit of advice she gave me once. Then I went to the drugstore and bought four "blank books," as they're called now. I took them home and sat at the kitchen table and wrote my name in each one.

Some of the old folks in church still use the expression "pray it through," which means that you pray until you know what to do next or until at least you have the peace to stop praying. I have to admit, though, that sometimes a thing won't pray through. Or it won't pray through in the ordinary way. Maybe some of us pray better with pen and paper. However you pray, it hurts just as much, or it lifts your spirit just as high. I know already that the prayers I'm about to write will probably hurt more than uplift.

When my son was small he'd go through a little routine when I told him it was bedtime. He'd march around the house singing loudly, "I'm not sleepy, and sleep is bad for me. Beds are for lazy old people, and Jesus doesn't want me to be." He wasn't much of a poet, but he believed in that little song and had to sing it every night, just to make his protest. Albert and I learned to let him sing it, usually about thirty times as he roamed upstairs and downstairs and around the furniture. We'd tell him it was bedtime awhile before it really was, because we knew he'd have to do his singing first. By then he'd be yawning and running his words together, and we'd put him to bed. We didn't even get mad about the song, or at Jimmy for singing it.

I've decided that Almighty God looks at my arguments in about the same way. Lets me sputter and make excuses, then about the time I wind down he gives me the same news as before, and by then I just take what comes.

I'm feeling like marching up and down and singing a little song of my own these days. It wasn't that long ago when I especially needed to hear God, and yet God always managed to be where I wasn't. So I finally accepted his absence and did the best I could. Now I'm sitting here in my empty house with these stiff, empty journals in front of me. And I suddenly find that God is sitting in the chair opposite me, like a teacher waiting for the student to get busy. Isn't that just like life-when you're ready to go off on your own without a care, the Lord shows up, bringing impossible requirements with him.

I had no formal schooling past high school, and I know that only writers write literature, because they're gifted to do it. But stories belong to us ordinary people. I'm not even that fond of my little set of stories, particularly some of the endings. But endings aren't up to me. The stories are mine, though, and they're outgrowing me, like starter plants begging to be divided and repotted. These stories are poking out of cracks and memories and even my daily thoughts.


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