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Good Letters

Outside the old panes, the few ash and maple crowns stood bare in dead air and dead light, the skies beyond them so often matched to pewter around here. Snow, maybe rain, usually both along the coast. For two hundred-some years such skies knotted lighthouse keepers up out on the point, but now, mostly from nostalgia, only fog horns moan when the weather kicks up.

In the churchyard a starling flock flooded a sugar maple–preening, jittering, jousting–their oily iridescence dulled in gray light. Even through the glass I could hear the dark, hundreds-strong clan burping out their strange language. Counsel was brief, and they gushed off.

Below, Shannon and I had wandered among tilted headstones a while before she led us here, to the main church chamber. Outside she’d pawed lingering snow patches, stumbled along tree roots, tickled lichen, then clambered atop several slate sarcophagi, cooing her latest litany of soft caws, like a crow nestling to sleep. Waiting her out, I’d scanned the grave tops. Most of the words, leeched by centuries, were gone, but at least one name remained legible. My God. Benjamin Church, the native-born English colonist who probably more than any other set America in motion.

Shannon is autistic, nonverbal, and cyclical, prone to prolonged calms punctuated by briefer bouts of misery, and my wife Karen and I have adjusted to wallowing in the quietude while sand-bagging for the storms to come. Here in the congregation hall, apart from an occasional hen-like utterance while exploring the pulpit, the pews, the grossly unlevel floor, she’d been so quiet I’d nearly forgotten her. Vaulted, echoey ceilings draw her, and she’s developed an eye for what structures contain them. Churches pull her like flame. As she moved from this pew to that, toed her way along varnished aisles, ran palms atop psalters, I picked out an end seat near the broad windows and sat in blunted light.

I’d missed New England. Out West I found everything I’d sought, open air most of all, but years later realized it was chiefly spiritual congestion, not the human crowding I’d once believed, that drove me there. Youth does that, gumming up your interior so that motion, only motion, can purge those valves.

In retrospect, two things set me afoot: God and America. From childhood forward I’ve loved both, or have at least been fascinated by both, and the big skies, big country, big all of the West seemed like the place to imbibe them. For a time it certainly was. Ever since Plymouth, America’s restless character has tilted west, gulping what air it can, fleshing up notional liberties while inflating the myths they nourish.

God, too, hybridizes in that oxygen. From the Berkshires and Alleghenies to Appalachia and the Plains to everything after, settlers cargoed institutional worships west where those beliefs slipped off, breeding with God in the raw, shape-shifting within people caught between a lettered spirituality and whatever mushroomed up in shadowy hardwoods, the prairie’s oceanic breadth, or the Rockies’ God-plugged, God-abandoned passes. Such cross-breeding left us a bestiary of devotions, and I chased my own breeds north, where for ten years in Alaska I remained convinced that America’s quintessence, theology included, lay in the extremity of its Big Bang, not its source.

With Shannon, though, came marriage and a move, and New England seeped back in. The source became all, a singularity that arguably lay just east of where Shan and I currently dithered, where whatever remained below that grave just outside was once barbaric enough to establish an inroad and with it, inevitability.

Picturing my imagined children, I just assumed we’d discuss history. There’s grounding in the past, and fascination, and uplifts and shames with every hue between, and I thought without thinking that my kids, sons likely, would root in that soil. My parents bound me in all they knew of America, and whatever I discovered later only buttressed that sense of belonging to a people, a place, a country. Having nestled in from the start, I was eager to bestow similar stability to whatever offspring came my way, and if I never pictured Rhode Island, let alone this church, I’d conjured a thousand similar places, scripting their ensuing discussions.

“It’s hard to see a country without George Washington,” I’d have said. “But without Benjamin Church you don’t have Washington. It started just over the water, on that island, then spilled around the bay. They were English then, three generations in, but hadn’t stabilized. Divided themselves, the Natives pushed to drive them out. The English called the Indians savage, but Church adopted the way they fought, and it’s hard to argue that New England wouldn’t have failed without him. It was a hundred years before the Revolution, but it gave them a notion that the people here were meant for something else.”

God, of course, provided that something’s keel, and as Shannon hopped in the center aisle, marveling at the way her hums bounced off the rafters, I looked outside, to the hardwoods and first fluttering flakes, where our confected God still mingles with creation to produce the same spiritual fog that people like Hawthorne, Melville, and Dickinson wandered through so fruitfully. For me, there’s presence in that haze if not form, and if I’m unsure of what I sense in the woods, swamps, and meadows all around here, I’m made no less whole by it.

Before Shannon, I thought such secular and celestial bearings were as concomitant to being human as opposable thumbs. Maybe that’s so, but Shannon shows the exception, along with the unimagined liberties when those inherited orientations never transmit. Nothing’s a signifier, nothing signified. Trees are only wonders, and these walls, unfreighted, are just a place for echoes to play. Outside, the tomb was a flat something to dance upon, not a chamber of veneration or butchery, depending on who you ask. 

Awe for Shannon is pure, unencumbered, and as her voice ricocheted about, she climbed a pew, tracing sound. This would be a while. I took a Bible out of the bench rack before me, thumbing to page one in dying light as my daughter poured out her wordless, disjuncted song:

“. . . And evening and morning were the first day.”

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Mike Freeman

Mike Freeman's work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review and The Massachusetts Review. This essay is part of a collection in progress.

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