A good friend of mine, Mary Berlinghof of Newport, RI, shared an opinion piece from The New York Times with me today. It was written by a Times Contributing Opinion Writer, Margaret Renkl, whose byline caught my eye since she is from Nashville, where my daughter and her family live. Please read it:
If you thought, as I did, that there was some wonderful profundity in Ms Renkl’s thinking, then I’ve accomplished what I set out to do — so no need to read further if you’re in a hurry. If you’d like to know my thoughts on the piece, though, please stay with me.
First, the way Renkl talks about nature, and especially nature in the South, reminds me of Wendell Berry, the preeminent poet of things natural and rural. Renkl obviously feels and hears and sees the natural world unfiltered and clearly. In the purest sense, she seems to be able to commune with nature. Nature inspires her: “Far above the ground, a hole made by decay in a living tree had become a cold frame, a natural greenhouse that lets in light and keeps out the frost. Life in death in life.” Later she writes, “Tiny beautiful things are bursting forth in the darkest places…”
She also finds trancendence in nature: “Above the trail, the limbs of the living trees creaked in the rising wind, the kind of sound that makes your heart ache for reasons too far beyond words to explain.”
Unless you read her piece carefully, you might be tempted to think that the message is simply about escaping from our chaotic world into the beauty of nature. But that isn’t exactly what she’s saying. Twice in the essay, Renkl says plainly that dropping out as a concerned citizen is not what she is about: “Paying attention to what is happening in Washington is a form of self-torment so reality altering that it should be regulated as a Schedule IV drug. I pay attention because that is what responsible people do….”
Later in talking about Lent she writes, “I would like to give up the president himself for Lent this year — but life in a democracy does not afford such luxuries.”
So for this Lent, Renkl resolves to look, each day, for as many “ordinary miracles” as she can find. She vows to keep looking each day until she finds one. That to me is an inspired Lenten resolution. And I agree that one can find little miracles in nature as she describes it, and as Wendell Berry’s poems endlessly illustrate. But you can also find ordinary miracles in the people you meet every day. If we’re not paying attention, though, if we’re obsessing over the “perfidy of a red-faced man hollering out his hour on the national stage,” we might miss the little miracles of life, whether they be in nature or in our personal interactions.
Maybe I am easily led. Maybe this article that Mary Berlinghof shared with me is just a piece of fluff. But I don’t think so. I find Renkl’s ideas to be most thoughtful advice about how to live through these disturbing times. And I find them to be good advice for keeping a holy Lent starting tomorrow on Ash Wednesday.