Mud Season arrived with a bang midweek, with heavy rains, temperatures dropping to within a quick kick of freezing, and a slashing wind that stripped all warmth from my ungloved fingers as I fumbled with the mailbox flap. The only possible response to this weather is beef stew. And so I betook myself down to the supermarket for a piece of outside round and a few mushrooms. Carrots, onions, potatoes, beef stock, and seasonings--these necessaries I had already to hand.
Was chatting about the weather with Margaret, the long-time express cashier, who is almost as much a feature of my life as my cats or kids. She agreed that hereabouts, we do indeed have not four but six seasons (summer, fall, fall mud season, winter, spring mud season, spring...) She also noted something I'd forgotten: that spring mud season this year was mercifully quick and easy, a poor excuse for the usual March-April misery. She wondered if maybe this fall's mud season will be a thought nastier, just to redress the imbalance? Or maybe next spring mud season will be a couple of weeks longer? Of course, there's always a third possibility: that we just got off lightly last spring, and that nothing worse will come of it. But somehow Margaret doubts it.
We keep thinking that for every bit of good we're given, something must be exacted in return. Nothing comes easy; there are no free lunches, conventional wisdom has it. "Every farthing of the cost/ All the dreaded cards foretell/ Shall be paid" as Auden wrote. Not only are we due for the consequences of our own actions; we also have to pay back whatever we've received in sheer good luck.
It's as though we feel that things have to be balanced: action against reaction, push against shove, until the sum is zero. It feels like one of those Universal Rules, like Murphy's Law. I don't know where this comes from - some intuitive understanding of physics, perhaps? And I don't know if it truly reflects reality. Human consciousness, after all, is magnificently selective: if we got one good Mud Season followed by one exceptionally bad one, we'd be sure to note and remember the pattern, while if we got two good Mud Seasons running, with no zero-sum balancing act, we probably wouldn't notice.
Funny, how we're always so attentive for whatever-it-is that fulfils our worst expectations ... Looking for snubs, we find them. Looking for hurt, we self-inflict it. Looking for rejection, we court it. Looking for failure, we earn it. It's human nature to look for the negative, and some of us take this to the max. It's no longer enough to have a zero-sum game, where the good and the bad balance each other out. Instead, we insist on a negative outcome: we must lose, we must suffer, we must discount or ignore all good that befalls us, because that fulfils our own self-hatred. It lets us turn our narcissistic self-rejection into a twisted form of nobility--ick! It's a sort of dark romanticism, and it drives me a little nuts whenever I run into it.
It doesn't occur to us to look in the other direction: at the Mud Seasons that are short and mild; at the beauty that lurks in this world, waiting to be noticed. We fail to register the acceptance we've done nothing to earn--the love that comes to us, not because we've bought it, but because it's just there, regardless. Or we deep-discount whatever good befalls: "Oh, yeah, I suppose that turned out okay, but what about *this*?"
But unearned good stuff is indeed what God's grace is all about. It's simply *there*. We've done nothing to deserve it. We never could possibly earn it; it's a gift, unimaginably large. It is a magnificent plus with no minus attached. God's own plus-ness is so vast that it can swallow up all our minus-ness as the wide cold Atlantic can swallow a bottle of ink, without the least change in colour. God's goodness can even absorb God's own pain over our misdoings, without a backward glance. That's something that I can barely wrap my mind around.
Maybe one problem people have in accepting God is that this overwhelming plus-ness is so different from our zero-sum or minus-sum assumptions. We can't believe it's true: that this love will simply swamp the evil and suffering in our lives, transforming these things so that, in the end, looking back, we will find that all this pain has been transmuted into pure gold. It's alchemy. It can't be possible, we think, because alchemy isn't Real. But the limit there isn't the power of God's love; it's the poverty of our imagination.
We have trouble accepting that God's love will come without cost to us because the cost has long since been completely paid. We keep looking round the back of the gift, wondering where the price tag is. "How much money do I owe for what I own? How much more to pay?" The answer is nothing, zero, zip, nada. This is the living water, and it comes free. All God asks of us--asks, not requires!--is that we take a sip and try to look God's love for us in the eye.
For while God's love is so huge that whole panoplies of galaxies could dance in it with room and enough to spare, it is also focused on each and every one of us. However much we feel ourselves to be small, soiled, battered and bruised--losers who only deserve to be (at best) ignored--God's look at us is intent and loving, a look of kindness, a look of longing. Now, that boggles the mind....
Maybe this is something we should try to keep in mind more often, whenever we get our knickers in a twist about staining the sacred with the profane: the sheer enormousness of God, a love so vast that no evil could ever leave a mark on it, and yet so personal that it knows every unlit corner of each soul. Does it never occur to us to think that maybe God's Light is so huge that it simply absorbs all darkness without itself being in the least bit dimmed? And that this has happened, and will happen, from the beginning of time till the latter days, when the quiet Light will triumph?
A minute ago, the winds tore a hold in the cloud cover and just for an instant, the sun flashed abruptly golden across the sodden landscape, a burst of brilliance like a wild leap of pure Joy. It may be Mud Season. Doesn't mean we have to take it too much to heart.
The stew smells marvelous. Time to add the vegetables.