From Exile to Hope: The Light We Almost Miss

From Exile to Hope: The Light We Almost Miss

July 10, 2023

By: Rev. Lee Roorda Schott

Your dog’s weight lazing against you.
Good sleeping weather on a summer’s night, the breeze through open windows stirring your light blanket.
Simple pleasures, received mostly without effort or design. Moments that come, unbidden. Things so familiar, we could be forgiven for not really seeing them, day by day. 
You would name your own delights, if I asked you. Look around yourself right now. What do you see? Could you even begin to list all the things within reach of your senses, right now, that give you pleasure?
The sound of my husband working on supper, in the kitchen. 
The wooden rocker that was my aunt’s, freshly dusted and gleaming in the evening light.
The green of towering pine trees that fills the open windows across from where I sit.
What does it take to even notice these things, to name their belovedness, day by day by shortening day? Wouldn’t we be healthier, in mind and spirit, if we did?
I’m more attuned to them in times of grief and loss. I’ll cut the perfect peach, one dripping with pungent sweetness, and I’ll think of that loved one, or that parishioner, who will never taste that wonder again, never suck those last juicy drops from their own sticky fingers. Even allowing that this heavenly fruit in my hands may be a mere shadow of the luscious fruit waiting for them in heaven, still I ache for what they will not taste again in this life, for the cutting short of their savoring and treasuring and loving—whether of peaches, or of those they have loved or will miss out on ever knowing, or of landscapes green and golden, made new season after season without them. 
There is surely healing in the noticing, even when grief and loss aren’t at hand. Healing from cynicism. From the depression and anxiety that seems so close to so many of us. Author Fredrik Backman seems to suggest this, in describing in this amazingly honest essay the anxiety he experiences as a hugely successful author. Repeatedly, he expresses the relief of touching down with everyday joys, like having ice cream, playing with dogs, going swimming. 
I’ve just finished another book tour in the US, but my wife and our kids came along this time, so it was…much less scary. They’re my happy place, I never have time to be scared around them because they keep me busy by driving me absolutely insane. We saw sea lions and nine million dogs and had ice cream in four different states. Laughed a lot. It was a great adventure.[1]
The healing part of his adventure was in those small moments; do you see that? Ordinary pleasures. His “happy place.” 
I just finished Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See, which includes the story of a German boy, Werner, whose mechanical aptitude brings him early into the service of the Third Reich. Werner’s childhood was spent with his sister Jutta in an orphanage called Children’s House, tended by Frau Elena. It’s the very picture of deprivation and want. And yet, in his ensuing wartime experiences of danger and compromise, it is those memories—simple pleasures from even those hard years—that sustain Werner. 
He longs to sit on the benches in Children’s House again, to hear Frau Elena’s songs, to feel the heat pumping off the potbelly stove…, to see Jutta drawing at the far end of the table, sketching….[2]
It was enough when Werner was a boy, wasn’t it? A world of wildflowers blooming up through the shapes of rusty cast-off parts. A world of berries and carrot peels and Frau Elena’s fairy tales. Of the sharp smell of tar, and trains passing, and bees humming in the window boxes…. [A]nd a voice on the radio offering a loom on which to spin his dreams.[3]
This book has made me wonder: What memories would I dwell upon, were I uprooted from my home and family as Werner was? 
The Bible contains echoes of this kind of remembering, by people whose lives were shattered by exile, by the loss of they had held dear. Here are two among so many:
These things I remember, as I pour out my soul:  how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.                                           Psalm 42.4
Jerusalem remembers, in the days of her affliction and wandering, all the precious things that were hers in days of old.                          Lamentations 1.7a
When all is lost, human beings see more clearly the beauty they once enjoyed. Everyday rituals. Holy things. So much that we take for granted in ordinary life. 
It’s an important truth in a world where anxiety and uncertainty and hurry threaten our well-being. Where our celebrations of Independence Day are tarnished by news of mass shootings and dozens dead and injured. Where we have been conditioned to think that we are impossibly divided from our neighbors with perspectives that diametrically diverge. Listen to a political ad (the toll we Iowans have long paid for first-in-the-nation primaries) and you’ll be sure your political opposites live in a different America than the one you love.
And yet….
Cherries ripening among sunlit leaves.
The wonder of a garage door opening on cue, almost magically, thousands of times during its tenure.
That friend replying right away to your text, which wasn’t even that urgent. Their response saying, “You matter.” “We’re connected.” “You aren’t alone.”
If you and I and ninety-eight other people were each to make a list of fifty specific, ordinary pleasures in our lives, fifty things that we savor or treasure or love, and then we compared notes, I’m pretty sure there would be a lot of overlap. Or maybe, because we each see things others miss, we’d be surprised at how many different things were on my list versus their list, or the next list after that. But even then I’m pretty sure we’d say to each other, more than once, “Oh, yes, that’s definitely a good one; I’ll add that to my list.” And they’d say the same back to us, as the things on our list inspired them to expand their own. 
No matter our differences. In spite of the ways our perspectives diverge.
In spite of our anxieties, and our carelessness of so much that is ours.
We’d marvel at the richness of these blessings, at their abundance, at how incredible these lives are that we lead, almost without noticing.
And in the noticing, we’ll give thanks—a stance that research shows can improve our mental health. Centuries before the research was in, Meister Eckhart famously said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is Thank You, it will be enough." 
The scent of tomato vines on your fingertips.
The movie whose lines we know by heart. (“Inconceivable!”)[4]
The bread and the cup, a sharing that has shaped us.
Thank you, God. Thank you, thank you.
So, now, it’s your turn. What will you take time, right now, to notice, and savor, and love? Let that knowing move you toward thanksgiving. For your sake, and for us all.

[2] Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (2014), 325. 
[3] Doerr, 389
[4] That’s from the 1987 movie The Princess Bride, of course.
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