Journey to fishcamp; Frederick Buechner

On Not Mourning Joan Rivers+ What Are Words For?

At the news of Joan Rivers' death Whoopi Goldberg tweeted, “There are no words.” How can there be no words for the platinum woman who spent nothing so recklessly and callously as her words? When news broke of the two women who had been abused and imprisoned for 10 years in the basement of a house, she implied their fate was better than hers--having to live with her daughter in a small apartment. "They got to live rent free for more than a decade," she quipped. This is the woman who said of German supermodel Heidi Klum, “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.” A thousand other such phrases illuminate her career. When confronted with her affronteries, she refused to apologize. Her defense, always, "I made a little joke. That's what I do. Calm down."  

I believe in grace and mercy, having received so much of it myself, but I also believe it's fair to weigh the words of a public figure who made her living by her words. Her jokes were chosen to offend, to assure headlines, to keep her career racing along. And they did, right to the last. Her legacy? Variety magazine writes, she “paved the way for raunchy female comics.” Isn’t the world a better place now that Rivers has helped close that gender gap, proving women can be just as raunchy as men? And her followers this week rise en masse to bless that rasping tongue, now silent. 

 In her honor, I propose not only a dimming of the lights on Broadway, which is symbolic of her influence in a way not intended. But more, I propose a week of silence.

A week of silence to heal and to reflect. 

I have just come from this. The day Rivers died, I was in the midst of a week given to silence---and carefully chosen words (at the Harvester Island WIlderness Workshop.) Both reminded me what words are rightly for.

Words first brought ocean, dragonfly, fireweed and mountain beauty out of nothing. 

Words placed and welcomed First Man and Woman into a garden, a home . . . 

        Our words can open locked doors and make a home, even on an island in Alaska.

Our words are to bring order and loveliness out of chaos and mess.

Our words can collect far-flung strangers . . . .

and weave them into friends, a fellowship of listening.

Our words can bind the world together, make of us a family, one huge body, a circle of praying arms and feet.

Our Words, written from our empty closet, bring others into our aloneness, and the One is now Two and Three and Seven. Your story is now mine and yours and ours. We share the weight and the closet is now lit.

Words from grateful lips make of every plate a feast, every glass of water, wine.

And Words withheld, silence summoned, allow the mountains to speak, the tides to whisper, the jellyfish to slurp, the rocks and seals to cry out their own names, which are themselves prayers and praises.

Frederick Buechner has written this caution for us:

“We must be careful with our lives, for Christ's sake, because it would seem that they are the only lives we are going to have in this puzzling and perilous world, and so they are very precious and what we do with them matters enormously.”

In just the same way, if Buechner will permit me, we must likewise be careful with our words, for Christ's sake, because our lives are short; these are the only words we are going to speak in this puzzling and perilous world, and so they are very precious, and what we do with them matters enormously.

What we do with them matters enormously.

I do not wish to offend, but Rivers' death teaches me this: That we are not here in this life to insult one another for the sake of harm or amusement, but we are here to speak the kind of words that bind, that heal, that reveal, that blaze in truth and radiate with love. 

May we all spend our lives and our words well. 

Journey to Fishcamp: Don't Be Afraid

“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”  Frederick Buechner

I arrived at our fishcamp island less than twelve hours ago. It’s a mile long island off the west side of Kodiak Island. I am already awake, though it is  5:30 a.m. and I have slept only five hours. In good weather, the weather we were given yesterday, the trip is not long: a bush plane flight, a bumpy frigid skiff ride and we are here. I am not astonished, exactly, by either the getting here or the being here. I have migrated yearly to this island for thirty-six summers and two winters. 

                                                                            Harvester Island

But I did not try to sleep on either the flight or the skiff ride  as I have done other years, years when the task of packing up a house and six children for the summer, of simply readying four small children to ride in a cold skiff, in thirty-five degree weather and loading forty-five boxes from our house to a van to a plane to the boat left me exhausted.  Nor did I try to read or write, as I often do. I was awake the whole way, hoping to see again, hoping for astonishment, hoping for some new beauty in this world that I have missed before. 

It is a world both beautiful and terrible. A world of mountains still snowed on top and brown below this May 28, with little sign yet of summer green. Where there are yet no flowers, but mosquitos have already begun. Where even winter coats are not enough to stay warm in the skiff right now. Where the getting of fish costs strength, bodies, sleep and sometimes it steals kindness, even love.  

I stayed awake because of my two sons behind me, 10 and 12, who know this flight well but who squirm with joy and hope for their summer life to come. They know what will come, a summer of hard and sometimes scary work fishing on the ocean, but a summer of hikes, of learning to run a boat themselves, of playing on the driftwood on the beach, of our family gathered around the nets and around the table.

I stayed awake with my camera, thinking of all of you, knowing I was taking you with me. What would you want to see? Because you have been writing back, I know some of you. I watched with your eyes.

Last night, an hour after we landed and loaded and unloaded our boxes and food, we watched a pod of fin whales feeding out by the reef. They were not doing their simple behemoth dive that curls their backs above water, sinking them like heavy ships into the deep. We know about these dives. We know their sound, the blast of the saltwater through their cavernous blowholes. We watch them all summer long, nearly every summer. 

But  not now. They were doing something different. They were feeding on their side, skimming and feeding on schools of herring, their usually invisible flippers flapping and slapping the water. They were lunge feeding. My sons and I watched excitedly with binoculars as they rose and rolled, flushing the waters with their spinning and lunging, mixing water and whale and air into a wondrous froth. 

 We did not believe they were fins at first. Fin whales are sober whales. They don’t cavort or frolic like humpbacks. They’re massive, second only to the blue whale, and they haul their heft with great solemnity about the oceans. They know what life is about. They migrate to this bay  again and again. They’ve seen it all.  But now. There are fresh herring darting into the bay. Now it is nearly summer.  Now food has come and the waters will soon be warmer and why merely sink and dive when they can spin and skim the lovely surface and net whole schools of tasty fish? And maybe someone somewhere sees their joy, their perfect feast, and laughs at them, and who knows what else is possible in this  watery world? Who knows what else might happen this summer in this very place?

G. K. Chesterton reminds us what is possible:

"It is possible that God says every morning to the sun, ‘Do it again,’ and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all  daisies alike. It may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never gotten tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we are.”  


Nor does he make every whale alike, or every island, or every summer. 

Can we believe this, that though we have all been this way before---wherever that way is---however far or close, however silent or loud,  however sweaty or cold, safe or dangerous, however beautiful or plain----God is still enthralled with it all? And still enthralled with you?

It is true.  

Beautiful and yes, maybe good-terrible things will happen this summer. They are for us. 

Stay awake.

Don’t miss any of it.

Don’t be afraid.