For no good reason, I wake up at 5.30am. Jeff is the only other one up; he’s fully groomed, and pouring cocoa powder by the tablespoon into his coffee.
Like his brother, whom I know from church back home, Jeff lights up at the opportunity to chat. He has that rare quality of seeming to be listening, even when he’s doing the talking. I don’t understand how that works. It’s the exact inverse of narcissism.
Jeff teaches auto shop at San Luis Obispo high school, the only high school in town, apart from the private Catholic school. He has two grown daughters, who live at home, and a son who lives next door and is about to be married. Between these two houses, there are also two more girls and three more guys, not counting Meshack. It’s hard to tell who lives where; they all come and go throughout the day, along with various friends who keep me working hard to remember which names go with which faces, the one form of memorization I find peculiarly hard.
The surfeit of daily occupants doesn’t stop them from giving me my own room for the week.
Jeff’s wife, Nancy, is thin as a reed, with brown curly hair and eyes as bright as mica. Meshack tells me she is always baking something; when we arrived yesterday, she was roasting chickens for their Bible study the following day. That’s a wonderful thing to walk into.
The guest room is monastically simple and as warm as if I’d lived there all my life. The bed is covered with a quilt that looks homemade. There’s a basket filled with hotel soaps, bottles of water, and bags of raisins and nuts. Against the wall opposite, beside a couple of jars of buttons, there is a framed illustration of Proverbs 3.5.
I open my computer but can’t find a Wifi signal. Abigail tells me they discontinued it, so that there wouldn’t be a temptation factor to go online alone. I can, she says, plug in with the ethernet cable in the living room.
One of the girls suggests that I could piggyback on the neighbor’s Wifi…the signal is strong enough in certain rooms.
Abigail looks at her in disbelief.
“That wouldn’t be ethical,” she chides. “We’ve talked about this.”
Jeff leads not only a Bible study, but a full-fledged church in his home. The church they used to attend wasn’t keeping the faith at a high enough standard, so they started gathering a small group of the faithful in their home. Given the warmth of their home, with its mellow pine floors and baskets of yarn and family photos and Nancy’s penchant for offering food, it’s not hard to imagine the draw. But given the size, it’s hard to imagine that they could have that many attendees.
Jeff looks impressed that I’m up as early as I am. I tell him it hardly ever happens. I don’t tell him that I fully intended to sleep past their morning family devotional. But something woke me up early, some kind of imperative that kept me from going back to sleep, though I wanted to.
I tell him that I wish I was the kind of person who could seize the day just as it breaks, like my sister or my mom do. (I wonder, in that moment, if there’s some connection between strong spirituality and the ability to get up before the crack of dawn.)
In fact, Jeff says, it’s not a matter of naturally waking up at that time. It’s work, and doing it well, that drives him. “Work is meant to humble us,” he tells me. A great smile is on his face as he says it, and quotes the book of Job in support of his point:
“Is there not an appointed time to man upon earth? Are not his days also like the days of an hireling? As a servant earnestly desireth the shadow, and as a hireling looketh for the reward of his work: So am I made to possess months of vanity, and wearisome nights are appointed to me.”
As he says this, I’m looking for something fanatical in his eyes. But there’s only good humor and a deep appreciation for his hot chocolate/coffee.
The point, he says, is that hard work and its accompanying exhaustion reminds us of our place on the earth. Getting up early enough to lead family devotions and then riding his bike is more than a necessity of providing for his family, or even being a good employee; it’s a way to remember his dependence on God.
We talk a lot about these things, he says. But maturity is learning something, and then going and doing it. That was their problem with the church they used to attend. They don’t dislike the people, but they didn’t see the follow-through in their lives on what they claimed to believe.
I ask him if it’s been hard to see those people, since they left the church. Since SLO is a small place, they must run into each other. They must know what instigated him to leave.
Jeff says that he still loves them. And yes, it makes it harder than if there had been some flagrant violation of Scripture. It’s easier to take sides, to love only one side. It’s work to love two where you would have normally loved and been loyal and worked to see the good side of only one. At the same time, he is responsible to the way he believes God called him to lead his family. He quotes again, this time from the book of Hebrews:
“God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.”
This quotation has the effect of making me a little bit braver. I get very dog-like around people who can do that for me. By the time we are all gathered in the front room, the sun is streaming through the overcast layer of fog, I am a willing devotee.
The boys ride away, bowed by their backpacks over their handlebars, and Nancy goes back to the kitchen, where she is making pie crust. She asks Vincent if he likes homemade bread with homemade apricot jam. And while he eats it, and I tie up my running shoes, I see her leaning into the kitchen window. A bluebird is tapping at the glass.
“This is my friend,” Nancy says. She smiles from ear to ear.
The bird comes to the window every morning, she tells me, and after he has got her attention, they meet at the front door, where she lays down some crumbs for him. She used to have to set them outside on the porch, and step away, in order for him to come near. Now he will hop all the way to the doorstep for the crumbs, even while she watches. She’s hoping to get him to come all the way inside the house, before he grabs the crumbs and flies away.
A gray morning in the fall
This is not about the gum wall in SLO, CA. It's about accepting your environment.
A first salute and a silver dollar