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  • Let Evening Come
  • Karen Salyer McElmurray
    Summer 2015

I have a garden that is a tangle, not of sweet peas, but of sunflowers and black-eyed Susans and echinacea spilling over a bank on the patio. As I sat out there last evening sipping my wine and watching the sky, I was jubilant. Marriage equality at last, after legal battles spanning forty some years. Love is love is love. But [End Page 129] not two weeks ago, in a church in Charleston, a young man’s act of rage took the lives of nine people. Another church in Richmond, Virginia, and some man banging the walls with a metal pipe while he shouted racisms at the congregation. And Thursday morning, a black church burned down in Charlotte, North Carolina.

I remembered a line from Voltaire about garden-minding and some days I want that to be enough. How can I use my voice in a way that matters without adding to the chaos of the world? I want to believe that beauty and a voice on a page and prayers even are enough. I want the power of quiet voices.

Some of my earliest memories are of voices. Sunday mornings. A church house, but I’m not sure where in eastern Kentucky I was. I was little enough to have the world be a floor and feet and things they gave me to keep me busy. Paper fans with Jesus and hymn books to stack into forts and towers. I also remember windows open to summer air. A bulletin board with how many attended, so I was old enough for numbers. And the sound of voices rising. It was the kind of church where people went up front and knelt and prayed all at once, a song-prayer, a collision of whispers. Quiet voices. Heal her, Lord. Listen. Praise. And later, in my memory, people waved arms toward heaven or ran around the room or fell out, their bodies shaking. It was a church to scare a child into belief or its absence.

Over the years, I’ve gone to a dozen kinds of churches trying, maybe, to understand what those prayer-voices were really saying. Quaker meetings. Mass. A temple blessing with yak butter and prayer flags. I’ve lit candles for the Blessed Mother in cities all over. Gone to a nunnery on the outskirts of a village in Greece where I lit candles to the Virgin of the Three Martyrs. Climbed to the grand, echoing Sacre Coeur at Montmartre. Gone to a roadside church of the Pentecost as I drove miles of backroads toward Harlan County, when I went [End Page 130] back to visit the grade school I went to when I was a kid. All of it a faith from childhood left behind long ago.

My faith has been replaced by a variety of other voices. The word soul, someone said to me a couple years back, is a cliché. Better to think of faith as a secular experience, someone else said. Or this: spiritual writing won’t sell. And this: all that talk about belief, it sounds so flakey. The charismatic churches of my early childhood represent to many a mishmash of uneducated with a dash of pagan thrown in there for good measure. I’m surprised, a student said to me on the phone the other day, that you’ve kept your accent from where you come from. Why, I asked. Oh, people don’t respond to me very well when I say I come from the mountains. I’ve kept my voice, my heart, my faith, but I’ve kept it all in my pocket, a breviary of which I am dubious and curiously ashamed.

What would it look like if I took my faith out of its hiding place and held it in the palm of my hand? An origami bird. A polished red stone in the shape of a heart. The book I’m working on, dozens of little fragments about fire. The first fire I remember. A little girl they told about when I was little, how she fell face forward into the fireplace and her daddy grabbed hold...


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pp. 129-132
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