Where I live we don’t enter Advent in the snow. It snows here, but only rarely and those occasions tend to occur in January or February. Our entry into Advent is not blanketed in white but rather tinted yellow and sprinkled with brown as vast expanses of mixed-grass prairie go dormant and the scrub oak and sycamore drop their dead leaves. When I was a boy, being out for Christmas vacation mainly meant wandering through all that open yellow alone as we lived, in the words of Frost’s “Birches,” “too far from town to learn baseball” and even farther from any birches. As I wandered through the pastures around my house, the sun—bright, cold, and low all day—illuminated the nearly translucent yellow like a Tiffany lamp. This yellowing is a suspension, a pause in the greenness of the world after every green thing has gone to seed. That was the first hopeful sign: grass cut and baled and seemingly dead. Yellow is the color of waiting in Oklahoma.

Waiting may not be the first thing to come to mind when one thinks of Oklahoma. After all, we are the “Sooner State,” a nickname derived from settlers who sneaked into newly open territory before the official beginning of the land run of 1889 in order to surreptitiously lay claim to a homestead. While the “sooners” were at first reviled as cheaters, Oklahomans soon adopted them as symbols of the “can do” attitude that pushed the country westward. In short, waiting was for chumps. There is a persistent sense of impatience in a state as young as Oklahoma. The wheat boom of the twenties encouraged farmers to hurry up and get rich by converting ever vaster stretches of pastureland into arable, until it all went bust in the dust bowl of the 1930s. More routinely the oil industry in Oklahoma slips into boom and back out into bust in a way that seems inevitable but apparently is tricky to predict. Although the temptation to quick riches is strong enough to override the warning for many, one ought to see in these patterns a nudge toward the virtue of waiting.

While some Oklahomans are always scheming to get rich quick, others have learned through generations to wait in hope. These are the people Timothy Egan describes in The Worst Hard Time as “tomorrow people.” Wheat boom aside, the fundamental skill of the farmer is waiting, and the fundamental virtue is hope. To plant a crop or raise a herd requires the ability to postpone the payoff, which requires the ability to look at a patch of freshly turned dirt and see instead wheat or corn or alfalfa. It requires the ability to see generations of beef in a bull and a few heifers. A farmer has to see, with something more than what we usually mean by “imagination,” what is there already but not yet. That is the second hopeful sign: the not-yet-already in seed and in calf.

My people, however, generally don’t sound hopeful. In their talk—at the feedstore or at the doughnut and coffee shop in the morning—they make it clear that generally they expect the worst. Sure could use some rain; don’t expect we’ll get it. In all my years of growing up, I don’t believe I ever once heard any of my four grandparents express a general hopefulness about the future. I don’t believe I ever heard a one of them say that tomorrow would be better than today, though I know they must have held that hope in their hearts through many long, cold, and dark nights, through drought, depression, and world war. I don’t recall hearing them speak of hope, but I would never have thought of them as hopeless. For a people habitually up against it and dependent on the whims of the land—in producing crop or fuel—hope is something too sacred to be spoken. It belongs in the heart, not in the mouth.

The first time I read C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, I recognized instantly that Puddleglum is one of us. I would not have been surprised to find the gloomy marsh-wiggle living among my relatives in the hills that line the Oklahoma-Arkansas border. In every situation, Puddleglum is sure to express his expectations for the worst possible outcome. Even his good morning is qualified: “Though when I say good I don’t mean it won’t probably turn to rain or it might be snow, or fog, or thunder. You didn’t get any sleep, I daresay.” Later, trapped in the underground realm of Bism, he tells the children, “you must always remember there’s one good thing about being trapped down here: it’ll save funeral expenses.” Yet, when the novel’s heroes are at their lowest—both spiritually and literally—it is Puddleglum who brings the note of hope. The witch has nearly convinced the children that there is no Aslan and no upper world in which the lion rules, but Puddleglum interjects:

One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one more thing to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

Like the people I grew up among, Puddleglum speaks hope sideways, hope being too sacred to speak outright. But he speaks it anyway, sideways and hedged but there, the way generations of my family might speak of maybe a better crop or a new well next year. They may always say maybe. They may always add, but I doubt it. But they still hold that hope and act accordingly. Maybe this is the third hopeful sign: speaking the worst.

What is hope but the ability to know full well that we are due the worst and yet still wait on the good, the very good, and the Greatest Good? Hope knows the wheat crop may not come in, the chicks could die, we could all be martyred at any time. The corn will likely be blighted. The calf will likely be breech. Hope expects the drought, and hope expects the persecution. Yet always and above all hope expects Christ. All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.

It seems to me that the sense of waiting is native to the southern plains. It is implied in the openness of the landscape, the parallel blankness of yellow earth and pale blue sky. The sense of waiting is also native to the ancient faith I hold to. I don’t fully understand the New Heaven and the New Earth for which I wait. Not even close. But I can’t help but think that any Earth sensibly called such will have an Oklahoma in it. If, as Revelation describes it, the New Jerusalem has open gates through which the nations come and go, where but the redeemed places of the earth would they be coming from? He makes all things new. If we allow Blake to imagine that “those feet in ancient time” did “Walk upon England’s mountains green,” then is it so far out of bounds to imagine our risen Savior strolling through the grasses of the southern plains after He has refined His creation? It certainly is hard to imagine an Oklahoma without brutal heat in the summer and cutting winds through the winter, without always too little or too much rain. I doubt most of us could find it in us to speak of such a place. But when I do imagine it, it is fully green at last but somehow also still the yellow of waiting. It is open and clear and stretched out in fields the yellow of purest gold.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


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