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On Unanswered Questions

On Unanswered Questions

So often I find myself reading only to learn, to grow, or to find tangible answers to tangible questions. But sometimes there is something to be learned from open-ended beauty. Lately, I’ve intentionally shifted gears in this direction, swimming in literary streams of thought and poetry where the questions and answers are more defined by where I am at in mind, in body, and in spirit than the specific content of whatever it is I am reading.

My column this week is written in the same vein as the poets I’ve been exploring, with my hat tipped to them for their inspiration: Thomas Merton, Mary Oliver, King David. I hope it gives you a few minutes to reflect and rest.

The trees are losing layers of leaves and I am adding layers of clothes. It began inconspicuously enough in late August: a light thermal underneath my favorite T-shirt. Two weeks later, a thicker outfit, and today, three layers: A T-shirt, a well-worn hoodie and a light jacket.

A new season is born yet I am reminded of bereavement. As I take the same sidewalk to downtown Holland, Michigan each day, I see the unhurried passing of the red and yellow flowers in the park on my route. I grieve the loss of the fireflies and backyard parties; of trips to the lake and warmed skin. The fiery red and orange leaves burn the treetops until their barren brown limbs eagerly await the first frost.

Despite what the calendar says, I am almost certain autumn properly arrived yesterday in the form of the wind and the rain and the definite chill in the air that won’t disappear until May. As a cold drizzle slowly soaked me on my walk home from class, I accepted this transformation.

Wind knocks on my door

announcing a new season.

“It’s now fall,” she breathes.

The clouds send their drops

down to verify this change,

each like a small stone.

Dying leaves cannot
hold them; they fall to the ground

where I take notice

and scurry back home.

I reach for my pen and write,

feeling change within.

Perhaps it is because I live in a quiet town now instead of dwelling in the electricity of a city (or maybe it has little to do with my change in geography and more to do with the change in my pace of life).

Regardless, my internal lens has converged on the minuscule details that surround me in the mundane: the paint peeling from my porch. The rust on my mailbox. The smell of woody smoke as my neighbors give in and light their first fires. The sounds of poorly greased bicycle chains. And squirrels. Black squirrels. Everywhere.

I cannot escape this sudden influx of squirrels. Twice in the middle of the night I have risen fearful a squirrel had entered my house and is rummaging through my pantry. These squirrels dart back and forth across Central Avenue, always carrying a nut or a stick back to their mysterious homes in the tall tress in Centennial Park. On my short walks to downtown or to the park or to school, it’s not unusual for me to see 10 or 20. They are unafraid, demanding the right of way from both cars and pedestrians as they go about their business in preparation for winter.

Oh, quiet winter!
It waits around the corner
with its cold and snow.

It covers canvas
in blue and white paint so that
spring can coat us with

bright colors again.
Oh, quiet winter, we wait
for your arrival.

The squirrels know the harsh Michigan winter is on its way and so do I. It would be easy to draw a spiritual parallel with the changing of seasons and the preparation for winter. I could write about how fall gives us time to reflect on our work in the spring and summer, and how winter demands we slow down and hibernate, allowing ourselves to be fed and our sleep to be long and warm, cocooned in blankets and wool socks.

Instead, I simply end with a thought from Thomas Merton, who penned this in his journals on a similar fall day in September 1965:

“All of this is plain ordinary reality without any need of ideology or explanation. It is. That is enough. In the monastery, everything has to be justified because everything is very seriously under question. Here only I am under question, and it is right for me to face the doubt which is my own empirical self, myself as a question, knowing that in myself I also have Christ as answer.”

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