I carry through life many images and impressions from my annual childhood treks to Ponca City, Oklahoma. I remember the Marland Mansion & Estate, the regionally famous Pioneer Woman statue, my grandparents’ color TV (my family only had a small black and white set) and the striking downtown Ponca City streets, paved with red bricks fitted closely together that seemed to my eyes as fantastic as any yellow brick road.
My father’s parents lived there in Ponca City. So did my mother’s grandfather. We never overnighted with great-grandpa Mowder, but would always faithfully stop by for an afternoon visit. I remember being young enough to not even understand his relationship to me. He was a quiet-spoken man, this Harry Mowder, quiet, but with a gentle confidence and strength. He had already lived a full life by the time I became conscious of who he was. He had loved two women well and lost both along the way. He had raised several children and grieved the slow loss of one of them to an isolating mental illness. He had lost a finger down to the first knuckle, pinched in a railroad coupling accident. My cognizance of his history was always fragmentary at best.
My great-grandpa Mowder had spent his life in that region, laboring as a craftsman, a builder. He had swapped trades several times in his life, as the shifting economics of the depression era and the decades following had required. He built many houses that still stand in Ponca City, including one that has remained in the family to this day.
But those roads.
Those red brick roads that so fascinated me as a boy.
I eventually learned that Grandpa Mowder had built them as well, laying them brick by brick, leveling them so that seventy years later cars would still be driving over them, and scores of pedestrians would still be crossing them daily.
My work is no longer simply about vocation. It’s about joyful service. It’s about faithfulness. It’s about laboring as a means of serving the communities I’m presently a part of, but it’s also about loving the generations and communities yet to come. Douglas McKelvey
Those roads were the long work of a craftsman, of a man who built things with a vision that they should last. A vision that they should last, and that, utilitarian as they were, they would also be beautiful, symmetrical, pleasing to the eyes that would scan along their lines toward the various horizons.
How much theology is packed into the brickworks of a road so paved?
I remember once during a visit when my sister and I accidentally broke a slat in the old wooden swing in great-grandpa Mowder’s back yard. He didn’t get angry. He didn’t say anything at all. He just silently shuffled out to his shed, white-haired and hunchbacked as he was by then, found a suitable piece of planking, and immediately repaired the thing. Harry Mowder did not waste words, and he did not waste time, and he did not allow the things in his care to slip into disrepair. If it was worth repairing in the future, it was worth repairing in the present.
I wonder if that philosophy translated into his relationships as well. I would like to think that it did. Perhaps I should make a note to ask my mother about that.
A year and a half ago I wrote a short cycle of poems for volume III of The Molehill. They were character sketches inspired by the wonderfully-rooted poems of the late Wilmer Mills (who I had the privilege of briefly knowing when we were both young twenty-somethings trying to figure out how to fit words together like bricks to build beautiful and useful things that might last). The poems of my short cycle were centered on the historical phenomenon of “drowned towns,” those dozens of little communities that were intentionally flooded by the TVA decades ago, the inhabitants forced to leave their homes and lands and farms and relocate to higher ground. One of the first poems I wrote for that cycle I called The Song of the Gin Drunkard. As I wrote, and the narrator’s voice began to emerge, I realized he was giving voice to my own decades-long ruminations on those brick-paved downtown Ponca City streets I’d encountered as a child. Here’s the poem:
The Song of the Gin-Drunkard
What I have lost is not money. The new house is better than an even trade and I will abandon it anyway come Spring. I tried to remind them at the last town hall meeting how it was my grandfather laid
the red bricks in the courthouse square. Paving those streets with a care that is nowadays hard to come by. You could trace your fingers over those old seams for five days straight and not find space so much as to wedge a fingernail.
Can you not—based on that lone mathematical fact—work back wards to the kind of folk my people used to be? Clumped here like thirsty birchwood trees, loam-fed beside a trickling stream, their spacing thinned by Winters? What now, would all such hardships mean?
If you find even ten righteous men, will you still destroy this town? I spat against the ground; some spinster hissed. Men seized me by the wrists and set me out. It’s true I was clouded by gin but it was not my own offense I gave vent to. It was the cries of better men whose works we stood to shed like locust skins.
Perhaps I should have crawled back in to tell them then how his theology was best expressed in the symmetry of his trade. How he made things slowly and to last knowing the care to align each brick would be multiplied by ten thousand footfalls it must bear up under, and give no cause for stumbling.
©2014 Douglas Kaine McKelvey
Personally, I have just entered the ranks of the quinquagenarians. I’m old enough now to realize that my remaining time is limited. I likely have two, three, maybe even four decades ahead of me. Or maybe I only have one. Or half of one. Or just a year. Or a couple of months. I no longer feel immortal as I did in the sunnier climes of my youth. Though skies are still sunny enough to see by.
How shall we spend it, this last light of our day?
That’s the lingering question the father asks his young daughter near the beginning of The Wishes of the Fish King, a picture book I penned 18 years ago that I’m presently collaborating on with painter Jamin Still to finally bring to print. When the father asks that, he’s thinking of the next hour of their shared lives. But as the author putting the words in the character’s mouth, I was thinking of the next few decades of their short, shared lives together.
Though this quasi-autobiographical papa might or might not be aware of the “prophetic” ripples of the words as he speaks them, his words are a sort of blessing, framing the shape of his daughter’s life. It’s the question each of us must always be answering, and it’s the cultivation of a mindfulness to long tend the outworkings of the answering of that question that forms the shape of meaningful lives. By my reckoning anyway. “Teach me to number my days aright,” the psalmist says, “that I may gain a heart of wisdom.”
If we begin with the knowledge that our days and our hours are a precious, nonrenewable resource, then that perspective has the power to shape how we will choose to spend this hour. And, as Annie Dillard so wonderfully states, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
When my first daughter was born I painted a little picture and wrote four lines of verse to serve as a printed birth announcement. I titled the painting The Short Year.
The Short Year, because at her birth I was already aware that life, for all of us, is a very small span. She might live a hundred years, but even that would be so brief, over so quickly. Such a small amount of time in which to live out a story, such a short, fleeting little blip of a span. And yet, a short span that can be set like a diamond in the ring of eternity.
Because this—this short year—this is where we learn to shine.
So much hinges on how we answer:
How shall we spend it, this last light of our day?
In the last year—which was, mind you, a terribly difficult one for my whole family—a number of things came into focus. One of them was that I started to see my endgame more clearly. From the crucible of recent months, the rudimentary elements of a personal mission statement have begun to coalesce. I can’t explain concisely the relationship between these two things, the hard season and the focused vision, but the two are nonetheless directly related. It would take a separate essay to explore that topic.
A big part of my personal endgame can be summed up as such: In whatever time I have left, I want to create as many things as I can that will outlast me. I want to take what I’ve learned and observed and experienced and come to believe, and work those things into artifacts and expressions of truth and goodness and beauty that can serve as signposts for pilgrims not just journeying now, but also for those who will be journeying long after I’m gone.
On the one hand, this is simply a question of faithful stewardship, to utilize gift and ply craft. The outcome, after all, is never going to be in my hands. The bigger shift is in my perspective. My work is no longer simply about vocation. It’s about joyful service. It’s about faithfulness. It’s about laboring as a means of serving the communities I’m presently a part of, but it’s also about loving the generations and communities yet to come.
I want, in whatever ways I can, to serve as an interpreter for the ache that we all carry. The stirring ache that is opened by beauty. That luminous longing. I want to leave stories behind me like a trail of bread crumbs, stories that will tell the person born eighty-five years from now that they are not alone, and that that great and beautiful ache is pointing somewhere.
So this has become my vocational passion: To create stories that might serve others now, but that are also built to last. Built to last a hundred years or more.
I am no longer just writing for me or even for us. I am also writing for them, those pilgrims yet to come.
I am paving word-brick streets in the hopes that they will somehow bear up under the pilgrim passages of generations.
And such a cultivation of a hundred year vision changes how one goes about everything. In a throwaway culture built on speed and change and technological advance and fluctuation and endless possibility and redefinition, do we make choices based on popularity and profit margin or do we make choices based on what would be most loving for the reader a hundred years from now?
Is it an act of foolish pomposity to even believe one could create something that would still be relevant to future generations? A story that would be meaningful to its creator, and just as meaningful to its hearer a hundred years from now? Is it arrogance? Or is it rather an act of simple stewardship that implicitly bears small and defiant witness against the principalities and powers of the day?
I think we find the answer in the great legacies of story and thought and beauty that have been bequeathed to us by those who came before. Chesterton, Lewis, MacDonald, Sayers, Augustine, and hundreds of other writers, artists, and troubadours. Where would we be if those generations hadn’t cared enough to create artifacts that speed our journeys, naming for us as they do those things that on our own we might have taken a lifetime to articulate and embrace? Perhaps our own offerings will stand similar tests of time, perhaps not. But we can create them as if they might.
So here is our call, or at least one of the great outworkings of our call: It is to build with love, things that might last.
Let us make and leave gifts, little treasures, and wonder-bundles to be discovered by those who come after us. Let us build with care and beauty and craftsmanship. Let us build for the generations not yet born. For the cultures not yet formed. For the healing of wounds that have not yet been inflicted. For the antidote to the despair that has not yet been felt. Let us make signposts to point the way for those pilgrims who have yet to begin their pilgrimages.
I believe it is time that the church more consciously cultivate again a theology that recognizes our connectedness to the Body of Christ not just around the world, but also across the span of history—both those who came before us, and those who will come after us. Nothing we do is just for us, just for now, just for our place and time in history. Through the legacy of our lives and choices, of the ways we love faithfully, and through the artifacts that we leave behind us along the way, things that embody our theologies of goodness and truth and beauty, we will perhaps still be speaking in love a hundred years hence. Or three hundred. Or five hundred. Or a thousand. Or two thousand.
How can we know?
So let us build. And build well. And let us build in the same spirit as those cathedral architects who spent lifetimes advancing the work of buildings they knew they couldn’t possibly see the completion of in their own short span of days. Let us serve in the same humble spirit of my great-grandfather who laid those red-brick streets to last. Let us faithfully and joyfully go about our various crafts, creations, vocations, and acts of service with a long-range vision to love and bless our neighbors, but also to bless those generations who will follow us, knowing that it is sometimes God’s good pleasure to take our small, imperfect offerings and multiply them into great feasts.
How shall we spend it, this last light of our day?
That’s the question. The way we live out our lives is the answer.
The Kickstarter campaign for Douglas McKelvey’s The Wishes of the Fish King book project (a collaboration with painter Jamin Still) ends at 9pm this Thursday, June 2nd. If you haven’t visited the project yet, please take a look at: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/dougmckelvey/the-wishes-of-the-fish-king