Rebecca K. Reynolds

Honest Company for the Journey

An invitation to the homesick

She was born coal-mining poor in Western Kentucky, about 1923. In the oldest photograph I've ever seen of her, she was about eight years old, standing in a thin, cotton dress and bare, dirty feet in front of a plank shack. Her shoulders sat back naturally like a child born into a higher class, little hands dug into her sharp hip bones, and she didn't smile.

Her daddy ran a pawn shop downtown, selling moonshine and probably marijuana. Come weekends, coal miners brought him fresh animal pelts, and he would carry them out into the back yard to scrape, stretch, and dry in the summer sun. He also knew how to weave strong nets out of rope, nets that took two men to throw into the Kentucky River. Those nets sank down into the quiet, green water bottoms where catfish lived, ancient fish seven feet long.

The old man's body was lean; it looked like it worked by wires  strung under his skin, and he always wore long shirtsleeves, even in the hot summertime, because this was decent and modest. He was modest, but he was not civilized. Once he shot a good hunting dog in front of a bunch of men, just to prove that he would do it.

But he adored his little girl. In the 1930's Effanbee composition dolls began to replace fragile china babies, and the old man spent too much money and bought one. "Unbreakable" was a claim she had to test, so she took the doll out back and chopped its head off with an axe. Then there were tears and tears for days, because she'd never had too much that was too pretty.

By fifteen the little girl looked twenty with the bones and bosom of a movie star. The boys were drawn to her like moths to an electric light. At seventeen, she found a Hollywood haircut and red lipstick. A steady young gentleman with promise fell in love with her, but he left town one weekend, and when he came home on Monday, she was married to a red-haired soldier with a square jaw, an iron chest, and a cherry convertible.

They married then found their differences. He worked the mines double and triple time to stay out of the house. She cut the rest of her hair off and stopped sleeping, working day and night to make her home look like a magazine spread.

She ordered prints of paintings from the Louvre and mounted them in plaster picture frames that she bought damaged at auctions and rebuilt. She found a Lincoln bedroom suit in an old chicken building and took it apart; it was museum quality when she was finished, and someone told me it was worth thirteen thousand dollars at some point. 

Her canvas tennis shoes were always worn through with holes in the toes; there was too much work to do to buy new ones. And it was all done to perfection. From any angle, in any light, flawless. I remember when she painted the kitchen walls fourteen shades of white. The same wall, fourteen shades. The regular whites were all too all pink or too blue.

She bought a kiln to make ceramics, little replications of French and German figurines, vases from Josephine's court. The she learned how to needlepoint and how to cane chairs, how to reupholster with Bloomsbury era fabric, how to layer thin sheets of real gold on old metal. She turned every inch of 3000 square feet above ground to glory while her husband turned to stone, cranking himself far underground in a mine shaft elevator to dig up black rock to light fires to make engines run.

When he was home, they fought, not just with words but with their bodies. When he wasn't home, her rage flew upon her daughters, the oldest by tongue and fist and the youngest by neglect. Cruel, terrible, damning things were said.

I was always nervous to be in that house. When I was about seven, I walked into the dining room and found an iron cage about five feet high, and inside were two little silk birds sitting on a swing. Their bodies were covered over with real feathers dyed indigo blue and deep violet, and their two heads were cocked as if they were having a conversation.

Once I opened the door to touch those birds because they were beautiful, but they were cold and hard, and I felt guilty about what I had done when it was all over. It wasn't a house that wanted touching.

She died early, not ten years older than I am now. You can't live a long life burning like that.

In the years that followed her death, her husband grieved in the way of men who have seen war. He looked for solace in strange beliefs about the Divine, and I remember him standing out in the yard, shouting at the storms to try and make them go away. He hadn't been able to stop cancer from taking his wife, and so he practiced on the lightning and rain.

But he lived in that house she had made; that house where her hands still moved. And the rooms filled up with dust, paper, and clutter while he bought gallon jugs of aloe vera juice and wholesale vitamins. He studied Sci-Fi and tried to write a book, even though the Depression had stolen his education. Then he died, too, and I remember walking through the rooms and finding that iron bird cage.

The dust was so thick on their feathers that all was grey now, only shadows of their jewel colors showed under their wings. I opened the door, still frightened of being caught, though everything was over now, the house was full of ghosts.

I touched their little heads, still cocked in communion. The dust wouldn't come off. It had been worked by gravity down into those feathers. My finger smudged them and made an ugly place, and it would have better off if I had just left them alone.

- - -

I knew from an early age that beauty wasn't simply a hobby; it was a moral good. When my grandmother was dying in the hospital, she lifted my mother's skirt to see if it was hemmed properly. If a thing was worth creating, it was worth chasing to death.

I loved my grandmother, even though she frightened me some. There was so much to admire about her fierce resolve, her passion, her unwillingness to accept anything less than perfect. She would not accept the lies of poverty. She was determined to make the most of every opportunity.

I remember being nine and telling her that I wanted to be exactly like her when I was grown up. I felt the intoxication of quality, of composition, and harmony even then, so deep in my bones that I don't know what I would be if those elements were taken out of me. And I have her fire in me, too. Her restlessness. I did end up becoming so much like her in the end.

I run to art when I cannot make sense of the poverty of the world. I need it like air. Beauty untangles me. But over time I have found that it cannot sustain me. It is not an end in itself. 

Have I learned the toxicity of beauty's lure through generational memory? How many of my ancestors had to find by hard consequence that the wonders of earth point not only inward but outward to another place and another time?

But fool I am, I forget. The sirens still call, don't they? And when I lose my bearings, when I see beauty as a destination instead of a means, I grow restless, peaceless, without anchor.

C.S. Lewis wrote, "The books or the music in which we thought beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing." (30) ... "if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited."

Homesick, see? I am homesick. At the end of it all, that's my problem and if you are honest, it is probably yours, too.

It's homesickness that can tempt humans to run themselves kamikaze into the earth of their own creations. It's homesickness that can make us impatient, desperate for immediate remedy. It's homesickness that can cause friends to give up on friends, and parishioners to give up on churches, and elders give up on pastors. It can cause husbands and wives to try and then to quit because we mistook the promise to love someone forever as a promise that loving a single human being might mean we would never be in mortal need.

And then, by fatigue or by necessity, there is a divorce, or a breakdown, or a severing, or a son who runs away from home, and in that backlash, Pandora's box is thrown open, and every tiny demon that has been nursing off disappointment is flung out into the world. They fly like wasps and scorpions into the community: defensiveness, anger, mistrust, pricking at us like hot needles.

Looking for relief, we sink our bodies into other bodies, finding a minute or two of bliss that turns sour and sad in the morning. We know we should walk with Jesus because we have heard the old preachers tell us so. But what does that mean? How can it be done?

We want the ache for heaven met fully on earth, right now, this moment, this year, while the carnival of unbelief roars around us with its mirrors and neon lights, suggesting that heaven is a fairy tale anyway, so we might as well spin the wheel and win a prize.

It is difficult to be sober when the funnel cakes are cooking, when the painted faces pass us laughing, and so we let ourselves be dazzled by it all, tucking a deposit of divinity inside us, but pushing it deep into that same pocket of our souls reserved for Christmas lights, and cranberry clouds, and the tooth fairy.

We are not so childish, not so naive to bank on God like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednigo. When we were fifteen at church camp that summer, we gave God permission to throw us into the fire, working out the math of "even so, we choose the Kingdom!"

But now, we are older, so we reel devotion in, in, in to 3000 feet of managable, masterable space. We haunt auction sales that offer us a bargain, and we bid, and buy, and refinish, and reupholster. We paint our walls another shade of holy-enough. We wear our fingers down with the world of replications of the divine, because we were born dirt poor and our souls have always wanted something more than what we have. We want a refuge that we can hold between two hands. Yet nothing is good enough, and nothing lasts long enough.

Did Satan find Christ homesick in the wilderness when he offered him a Craftsman studio in some lush woods with oil paints, and good brushes, and stretched canvas, and all the time in the world? He threw in good morning light as a teaser, but Jesus knelt in his darkness and chose mystery and submission instead. "Not my will but Thine" costs blood and sweat to pray. It costs following through.

I wonder if Shadrach, Meshach and Abednedgo were shocked that Sunday after singing, "Give me one pure and holy passion," when God said, "Sure, OK" and they were granted the wish? As they were flying into the flames, did they shout, "But there was supposed to be a ram in the bushes!"

Or before they hit the ground, could they see this was a greater gift even, the gift that Corrie ten Boom and Bonhoeffer were also given, to pass through the unknown into a fire in which we commune with the Son of Man?

Did they find in the pit of their stomachs after every lost idol flew like grey ash into the air that thirst was left, thirst for the work of praising God?

I hear, "Well done, good and faithful servant," and at those words, my soul gasps involuntarily, because it is too much to want, and it is too much to imagine.

When a piece of music ends, it leaves a sweetness in the air. It is a sweetness that begs for more. When I try to praise the music, my praise never lands on the right spot, because we can't ever pull the glory of beauty inside us. Lewis said this. He said that we are removed from what pierces us with thirst.

Because we are perpetual strangers in this universe; putting our hands up on a window glass and waiting for a hand to meet ours, pressing souls against souls, looking for some great heartbeat to thrum with ours to bridge this chasm. We want to see how "the door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last."

Oh, these shadows and flickers, so many stages removed from heaven. We are permitted to chase whatever we like, burning our mortality on little silk birds that entice before they return to dust. False love all, love that makes us wake up and then drops us, because what is lovely and desirable points through itself to a promise.

Oh, great God. What a trap this is! All of earth's glories are full of you, and yet you will not be contained by them. I am wooed by you and teased along. What a long time it is to wait for all to come together. Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning, burning, burning.

You have let me meddle with idols, but they have been hollow. I have consumed what is inside them, then I have thrown their foil wrappers out the car window. Nothing fills. Nothing lasts.

You have let me see this. You have known what I would find after betraying you. You have kept me afloat through my wanderings, preserved me like a box of nard to be burst upon Yourself. And so be it. Burst me upon you.

I come from poor and restless stock, people who tried to build heaven on earth. What else has humanity ever done? I could scrape the skins of dead things to dry in the sun and make a cover for my own nakedness, and I could lower great nets into the dark bottoms of rivers to bring up my own sustenance. I could paint beauty on glass that would shatter when the great trumpet sounds. I could marry for passion over a blazing weekend, and then spend my whole life trying to recover what I had lost. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.

Save me from futility. Let me die for what is worth dying for. Let me live for what is worth living for. Make me sick for the pure air of the North. A cross comes before the crown, they say, and tomorrow is a Monday morning. "A cleft has opened in the pitless walls of the world," so great Captain, let me follow you. Let me follow you inside.