Everlasting Is the Past
Walter Wangerin Jr.
Rabbit Room Press, 2015
Paul J. Pastor
The Suspension of Disbelief
Little is said about Walter's relationship with his longsuffering wife Thanne, though she does gracefully intersect the narrative at memorable moments, usually of hardship, like the beautiful and red-throated Pertelote of the Dun Cow's world. (A 2008 interview with the pair revealed that Walter's commitment to his work came close to destroying their marriage, a story of grace that I dearly wish was developed here.) Walter's children (biological and adopted) are spoken of a bit more, but usually in relationship to third things: an attempted shooting in view of the Wangerin house's front porch, a complicated Christmas caroling session, visiting the doll-like corpse of a former church member. Parishioners and even houses seem to receive more meticulous care than many of the personal elements of home life that must have been shaping factors for the man. Again, I am here, engaged, eager. Give me more, Walt.
Additionally, there is no clear sense that the book truly finishes, only that it ends, fittingly, at a point farther down the road of faith (implied by that Volkswagen on the cover) that it maps. It ends in grace found in Grace, doubt swallowed by a faith that has gained strength from walking, from wrestling.
At first brush, I considered these elements flaws in a nicely crafted book. Reflecting further, I think that they're intentional, omissions or commissions in service of a particular kind of good personal storytelling, just not as thorough one as many readers will desire. Walt's telling is Walt here, or at least a version of Walt, as much as its subject is. On reflection, the occasionally lopsided narrative is forgivable in light of the deep love, human and divine, evident in moments of family connection. Further, the poignant and powerful stories of ministry at Grace highlight the power of that simple, complex place in the life of its young, white pastor. Grace itself becomes a family to Walt and his brood, a kind of coop that, like Chauntecleer, leads its leader even as he crows out the hours with prayer. The abrupt stop of the narrative, roughly corresponding with the end of Walt's pastoral tenure at Grace 22 years ago highlights this further—this is a selective work, not the memoir of a life, but the memoir of themes from a life. It is something better than thorough, a catalogue of hinge-points in a life, each of which forms the backdrop to an implicit whisper: There is meaning. There is grace. You are beloved.
And it is beautiful.
There is an immediacy to it; it clung to me. And in some ways, the lack of resolution becomes a strength. Since finishing the book, I have caught myself pondering my life through Wangerin's, remembering his stories, his vivid, raw images. Somehow, his story hopped the fence into mine like a bold rooster, despite differences of time and place, despite difference of struggle. I felt a little more meaning, a little more grace. A little more beloved. It was a gift to me from Walt, for the second time in my life.
Candid and concrete, I guess.
Even today, Dun Cow dances for me with a lyrical innocence that convinces me it is a treasure. It explores, vividly, the boundaries of order and chaos, the feelings of creatures tasked with missions that are far beyond their nature to accomplish, the impossible paradoxes of faith and doubt and self-doubt, of free will, of providence, of surprises.
In Dun Cow it is the weak things of the world that can confound the strong. This is the principle that promises that the foolish things of God can upend the world's wisdom, that the meek shall inherit the earth, that the last shall be first in that Great Gettin' Up Mornin', that lions will one day rest with lambs, that a little child can handle vipers.
Everlasting, I think, is an extended meditation on this unfathomable truth. The suicidal doubter becomes the man of faith and sacrament. The poet becomes the preacher. The white man moves into the inner city, and discovers that much weakness is only hidden might—and all the while, choirs sing and roosters crow out the hours.
Both are stories of holding back the underground monster: Wyrm in the fiction, unbelief or unbelieving belief in the memoir. God, in both, is present. But in the way that a man who walks in his garden is present to the flowers.
I theorize that Dun Cow and Everlasting are two tellings of the same story—a story where God is very real, but at first glance appearing to his beloved creatures as an observer, inexplicably content to let his devoted workers bloody their feathers in a struggle for answers that may or may not ever come in a way knowable to them. The whisper of meaning, grace, and belovedness is there, but it is often quiet, in the same way it is quiet in a life. The plots of the two books come to climax and resolve, but not through grand or divine display—God's closeness is seen more through its effects than through direct theophany. Even the Dun Cow, the direct messenger of God, is an observer more than an active participant in the drama and suffering of the earth she serves. Grace is the conduit of its namesake attribute to its often-struggling pastor, but Wangerin seems to communicate it with a kind of learned passivity, a gentle and appealing humility born of honesty. This is the way it is, seems to be the sentiment. This is the way God is. It is his way. I am learning to trust it. There is encouragement to it, at least for those (like me) who have felt and questioned the distance of God to the cracks in his good earth. It reassures that closeness and intention are not always felt the way we choose. The hope here is honest. But it is not easy. God is his own, giving himself away, defending, providing, encouraging, redeeming, but never as Chauntecleer wishes and rarely as Walt expects.