I’ve been watching the Mississippi River freeze. A channel of open water winds a curvy black path through the middle of solid, snow-covered ice. At least by my house, the river did not stop its motion without a fight. The ice is piled up in jagged peaks and rough sheets that are wild even in their stillness.
Today’s passage from the prophet Isaiah is also full of water. However, in the Middle East, winter is the rainy season. So instead of ice and snow, streams, pools and springs appear suddenly in a desert climate. Dry valleys surge with rushing streams. The desert itself breaks forth with singing. And the way the wilderness sings is with flowers. A joyful splash of color emerges, which has been hiding all along beneath an apparently barren surface. Isaiah’s vision of the sand carpeted with wildflowers might be something we call a “superbloom” today. Such an event requires just the right conditions at the right times—first dryness to discourage invasive grasses, then penetrating rain to awaken dormant seeds. But not such a strong downpour that flash floods wash all the seeds away. And finally, cloud cover to regulate heat and cold, and an absence of strong, damaging winds.
The prophet’s promises were addressed to a people who likely did not feel that the conditions were right for a “superbloom” of beauty, joy and hope. These were people who bore the world’s trauma and grief in their bodies. They had weak hands, feeble knees, and fearful hearts. They were, whether literally, or figuratively, blind and deaf, lame and speechless. Preparing for the Longest Night service tomorrow, I’ve been thinking about how we, too, are inundated by the sorrows of the world, along with our own sorrows, how they slow us, weigh us down, dull our senses, narrow our vision and silence our voices.
For this year’s service, I chose some news articles that speak to me about our theme, “a way out of no way.” I selected them because they seem to describe situations that are so difficult there is no way through, no way forward: learning you have incurable cancer; eating alone after the death of a spouse; trying to imagine how 700,000 families will survive when they lose access to food stamps; knowing that this president, and those in power with him, are willfully killing our planet; wondering how to heal after a man turns a gun on his loved ones. Often, as I read or listen to the news I feel a sense of being called into prayer. Not prayer with lots of words, but prayer that is about acknowledging connection. This sense of connection is God, holding us together in our pain, troubling our complacency, opening our fearful hearts to the impossible possibilities that trying to be born among us.
The “Magnificat,” the song Mary offers to God upon learning of her surprising pregnancy, embraces the gift of struggle, the pain of birth. Like the frozen Mississippi, it sings to me of peace that is full of tumult. It hurts to transform domination into harmony. It is hard work to turn weakness to strength, hunger to fullness, poverty to power. When the high and mighty lose something, even something that was killing them too, they must still travel through grief and rage before coming to joy and peace.
In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer brings together scientific and indigenous wisdom. Her chapter, “The Grammar of Animacy,” describes how she struggles to learn her own native language. She labels everything around the house with post-it notes in Potawatomi. She speaks Potawatomi to her dog. Over the phone, she holds halting conversations with her sister in Potawatomi. Kimmerer finds learning the nouns of her language fairly easy, since she’s had so much practice memorizing all the Latin names of plants. What’s more difficult for her is entering into the vastly different world that the Potawatomi language depicts. She points out, “English is a noun-based language somehow appropriate to a culture so obsessed with things. Only 30 percent of English words are verbs, but in Potawatomi that proportion is 70 percent.” (p. 53) Flipping through the dictionary one day, Kimmerer remembers noticing many verbs that seemed strange to her.
My finger rested on wiikwegamaa: “to be a bay.” “Ridiculous!” I ranted in my head. “There is no reason to make it so complicated. No wonder no one speaks it. A cumbersome language, impossible to learn, and more than that, it’s all wrong. A bay is most definitely a person, place or thing—a noun and not a verb.” I was ready to give up. I’d learned a few words, done my duty to the language that was taken from my grandfather. Oh, the ghosts of the missionaries in the boarding schools must have been rubbing their hands in glee at my frustration. “She’s going to surrender,” they said.
And then I swear I heard the zap of synapses firing. In that moment I could smell the water of the bay, watch it rock against the shore and hear it sift onto the sand. A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa—to be a bay—releases the water from bondage and lets it live. “To be a bay” holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise—become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that too. To be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday, are all possible verbs in a world where everything is alive. . . . This is the grammar of animacy. (pp. 54–55)
I’m not advocating that we all learn Potawatomi or Hopi or Seminole, even if we could. But to become native to this place, if we are to survive here, and our neighbors too, our work is to learn to speak the grammar of animacy, so that we might truly be at home. . . . I remember the words of Bill Tall Bull, a Cheyenne elder. As a young person, I spoke to him with a heavy heart, lamenting that I had no native language with which to speak to the plants and the places that I love. “They love to hear the old language,” he said, “it’s true. But,” he said, with fingers to his lip, “You don’t have to speak it here. If you speak it ‘here,’” he said, patting his chest, “They will hear you.” (p. 58–59)
The prophet Isaiah describes a highway called the “holy way” through the critical time of crisis in which his people lived. The strange thing is that this road is not narrow and full of pitfalls.
No traveler, not even fools, will be able to go astray traveling this path. There are no lions, no ravenous beasts. This way is safe. It is wide and welcoming. In an animate world, a world in which everything is alive and everyone is part of the song, we will find a way out of no way, a way to peace and joy and wholeness. The melodies of Isaiah’s blooming wilderness the music of the frozen Mississippi and the revolutionary anthem of Mary’s pregnancy . . . these are the songs our missionary ancestors tried to silence in themselves and in this land and its peoples. And these are the songs we must once again learn to sing in our hearts, in our homes, our politics and the common life we share with all our living neighbors.