Once upon a time, I lived on a “sort of” farm. My family didn’t grow much more than a backyard garden, a few blackberry bushes, and a row of pear trees that bore fruit so grumpy and tart it was fit only for cobblers and canning. But we always had animals.
Rekindling what he could from his childhood on a South Louisiana farm, my father fenced off a bit of pasture that, depending on the year, was home to Jersey and Brown Swiss cows, dozens of Dorset sheep, and a handful of dairy goats whose dedication to breaking free from fences was something to admire. For the most part, my sisters and I loved our animals, especially our sheep. We tamed them and fed them and named them.
But the magic always happened in the winter, usually February, when the grass was stiff and colorless, when the blackberry bushes were skeletal, and the oak trees were rickety and naked. That’s when the ryegrass my dad planted would rise as sudden green waves cresting across the pastures and exhale something powerfully clean and verdant in a season of stuffy central heating and numbingly gray horizons. How near God became in that resurrected field. And when the ryegrass would come alive, so would the sheep.
Before and after school, my sisters and I raced each other to the field to look for the cotton dots of lambs in the swells of ryegrass. Sometimes there would be only one new lamb to know and name for a whole week before the others would begin to come in dribbles and then as a soft wooly storm of lamb after lamb. There’s one. There’s another. Don’t make that mama sheep mad, we said. And as the sheep came, in singles and twins and occasional triplets, we would name them, even the ones we suspected were destined for our table.
Today, I am sitting in an air-conditioned classroom, and my students stare at me across a table as though I know the answer to a riddle I am not telling them. We are talking about making things new; we are talking about the act of naming, of using narrative to capture the world around us with our faith and mind and hearts all intact. We consider places and objects, memories, stories already so told they have almost been rubbed threadbare of meaning. Their writing prompt draws them toward such an account; they will focus on a moment from the original naming narrative, Adam and Eve’s tenure in Eden. Their task means focusing on a moment in that garden well enough to uncover its texture or locate its smell, to unshadow the images made general and shapeless by so much exposure. But, the truth is, I am trembling along with them. The truth is, I am no Adam. This act of naming is daunting.
So we begin where I begin when I don’t know where or how to begin. We begin with a model, with a poem that once dragged my jaw to the floor. On first reading “History” by my mentor and friend Jeanne Murray Walker, I think I cried, or maybe I forgot to breathe for a few lines. I just remember I was stunned. She writes about Moses, whose story, after so many hearings, had lost its grip on me. But from her first line,
starts as an ache in the throat,”
Moses ceases to be a stick figure I once colored in Sunday school. I can suddenly picture him pulling at the frayed hem of his robe, wishing he doesn’t have to throw down his staff, his head hurting from clenching his jaw so tightly as he pores over what he has to do. In Jeanne’s poem, Moses becomes as real as the reader, who by proximity to that shared sense of humanity, is now invested, relocated in a stranger’s story because that story is now less strange, less hazy. In the end, Moses wonders about the death of all the firstborns in the kingdom:
“By first born
did God mean his mother’s oldest brother,
the Prince, who, like a faithful camel,
carried him all over the palace on his back?”
I look out into a row of students. One is wiping his eyes.
When my class begins the task of free writing, all I can think of is that lucky Adam. I see him standing in the garden, air like light and honey in his nose, perfect unsullied blood pulsing in his veins, head clear as the ocean, voice strong as the new sun. I can see him, no sense he can even get it all wrong. How free he is to name the new, clean world; images become names and words in his mouth.
But the furrowed brows and sighs of my students remind me the rest of us are stuck on the other side of the garden. The words we have are already so used, so frayed with misuse, that our naming must move beyond a word and toward a phrase, a sentence, a whole image-laden story. Unlike Adam, tasked with naming only life, we have to name death too; we have to name pain. For the first time in years, I think of the sheep my sisters and I named. Some of them were stillborn. Others were picked off by coyotes. Some grew and flourished, dying an old sheep age. But some were sold; some were eaten. Still, we named them all.
Leonard Cohen wonderfully wrote, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” In our post-Eden world, those who will take up the holy task of “naming” must deal with the wild and jagged and dangerous. The cracks and the beauty are often inseparable. To acknowledge one means acknowledging the other. It is daunting to name the sheep we know will die, to work with the narrative that we’ve heard more times than we can count, to employ words so ragged and thin that we wonder how in the world we can ever tell a fresh story or uncover the life in one we’ve forgotten to remember is full of miracle. But perhaps, the Christian and artist’s experience is just as profound as Adam’s for our work of naming a world even as its thorns pierce us.
The students scribble. I think of the lambs. I think of Jeanne’s poem. I think of what the right words can do in the right time, how they can name us all—our shared beauty and shared pain. I think of what a good poem can do for a skimmed-over story. And I pick up a pen as I once picked up a lamb, knowing words can take like ryegrass in February, that naming can happen in winter. Hidden in the cold pastures, moments and people and places—some aching and frayed, others new and clean—wait for the words, the sentences, the stories.