Times get hard. 2007 was a tough year for me. At the end of 2006, I spent 6 nights in the hospital. I’ve always been rather healthy, so this was a completely new experience for me. This put me in a spin for most of the first half of 2007. It also put new strains on an already strained budget. Suddenly I had become one of those people who had to take a handful of pills everyday. And while I have insurance with my work, it is work in retail, which pays notoriously low wages. A deductible and a percentage co-pay is still more than is left over from the take-home pay. It is a job I like, which is why I’m there going on five years, but it’s also something I do keep steady income while I pursue my real interests.
Which is to say, my writing. I mostly write short stories, so there’s not much in the way of income there I started a small press for publishing books, but I publish literary books: shorts story anthologies, poetry, plays. Clearly not bestseller sort of material, but things I believe in and enjoy. I get the occasional gig to lead a workshop but that is seldom more than a few extra dollars coming my way, if I’m not doing it merely for the exposure (i.e. no money). There’s always a little bit of a success, a little bit of a sign that things are moving in the right direction, but it requires an awful lot of energy to keep all these balls juggled and, frankly I get tired.
I sit there in my cluttered apartment and ask, “how long, o Lord, how long?” How long do I have to keep up this pace before I finally see some fruit from all this effort? How much harder do I need to work?
Times get hard and it’s easy to succumb to self-pity and despair, especially when all your friends have moved to the cool side of town and you’re still riding the bus in the, um, uncool side of town.
2007 also was a year of small epiphanies and hopeful steps. I’ll tell you about three.
Last spring, a young co-worker, college student, agonizing about where her young life was going, and to be honest, I was doing a bit of the same, despite being more than twice her age. She asked me one day, “Neil if you could do anything, what would it be?” I started to speak and I stopped. At that time, I was working with two colleagues on a performance piece. I was getting the second book for my small press ready for the printer. I’m always writing something. I said, “You know what? I’m doing it. I’m doing many of the things I’ve always wanted to do.” This became a huge attitude adjustment for me. After years of toiling away at jobs I hated, I had a job I liked and was actively engaged in several creative endeavors. All I lacked was money. And if money is all you lack well, money makes some things easier, but I was also getting by.
Which lead to another epiphany. I hate to write about this because it you may get the impression that this is an everyday or even every week thing. Understand: I don’t have what you’d call a disciplined prayer life, but sometimes I will sing and pray the compline service alone in my apartment. It’s long been one of my favorite services in the Christian tradition and sometimes, it helps me settle down for the night.
In Evangelical Lutheran Worship, the new worship book and hymnal recently published by my denomination, there is a moment in the compline service for brief scripture readings. They’re printed there and you can read one or several without turning pages or changing books. One of those passages is the lilies of the field passage. Do not worry about tomorrow, what to eat, what to wear . . .
A thought entered my brain: “See? You’ve made it through this day. Be grateful, don’t worry about tomorrow. You made it through this day, rejoice.”
And then I complained: “But it’s so hard to not worry about tomorrow. There are bills to pay, rent coming due, and the cupboard is looking a little bare.”
And a thought entered my brain: “But you did not die today. You had enough today. You always have enough, don’t you?”
And I whined: “Just barely!”
And another thought entered my pea brain: “But just barely enough is still enough. Don’t worry about tomorrow.”
Not having an argument for that, I went to bed and slept in peace.
The third thing I want to tell you is a little embarrassing, it’s so cliched, but this is true and so I share it with you as well.
I sometimes go walking in my neighborhood. I do not live in a neighborhood of fine homes. Mostly, the streets I walk run through warehouses and garages, very little retail (conveniences stores, gas stations, auto parts and other industrial/construction type shops) and the residences tend to be apartment complexes. I have to cross many streets before I get into town homes and single family homes, and still, these are not what you would call ritzy.
This being Houston, city of torrential rains and easy flooding, there are also deep ditches along these streets. Maybe it’s my farm-boy background, my childhood of exploring acres of land and woods and gullies, but I have to look into these ditches, see what’s down there. Last spring, I started noticing all kinds of wild flowers in these ditches and they made me so happy. Some were crazy tiny flowers. I found one that had the tiniest purple flowers, no bigger than a pin head. Classic five petal shape, royal purple color, but just so tiny. And I thought, what part can this tiny bloom play in the ecosystem? What creature could possibly be nourished by it’s grain of pollen, it’s immeasurably small dot of nectar? Why would such a flower exist? And I laughed at it and said, “beauty is its own reason.” And something renewed in me with this tiny flower, a boyhood sense of wonder. Renewed isn’t exactly right, as I can get lost in tree bark patterns or the veins of an oak leaf. But there was a renewed delight in these things. I thought to myself, “What abundance!” There in those ditches beside rusting tin warehouses, I felt like I was tasting the promised abundant life. It’s not abundance that pays rent, but is still abundance. It is breathtaking. It is breath giving.
There are still hard times. They are real, we don’t make them up, and they don’t all have to do with money. A stint in my heart, aches where I never had aches before. I remember my mother talking about how her feet hurt sometimes, and I’m beginning to understand. All of Mama’s fine qualities and I inherited her bad feet. Welcome to middle age, eh?
And it gets worse than that. There is serious illness, life-threatening illness, there is dying. There is loss and grieving. We all have our list of saints who have gone before, and our souls wait for a reunion, the promised New Jerusalem.
But the Reign of God is not only in the future, maybe not even primarily in the future. The reign of God is among us and under God’s Reign, there is abundance. Some days it is so hard to see, so hard to turn our vision to the right angle so we see it. Some days, we have to sit in the darkness and say “my soul waits on the Lord,” when there is no evidence that the Lord is even on the way.
These glimpses of abundance, these days of holy enough sustain us through those dark days, which is why it is so important to notice the good days, the small things, the joy of another breath in, another breath out, another breath in. Consider the lilies, the tree bark, the ditch. Do not worry. Go to bed. Sleep in peace.
Central Texas native Neil Ellis Orts grew up on a farm on the Lee/Bastrop county line. He earned a bachelor’s degree in theater from Texas State University, a master’s of divinity from Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest and a master’s degree in interdisciplinary arts from Columbia College Chicago. He has published fiction and arts writing, including the 2004 novel Hidden Gifts. He also makes short performance pieces and has presented them in Chicago, Houston, and Atlanta.