(First published at Art House America)
A poem by Denise Levertov speaks of the “grey gossamer hammock” that is the Lord’s and in it, the narrator curls and swings. A hammock of flimsy web that should rip apart, but doesn’t. A hammock anchored to thin twigs that should break, but don’t. You climb in and hope it holds. I like to wonder about the nature of all this unseen support that offers not only the safety of the curl but the strength of the swing. I imagine the catch of angels; God’s infinite palm; the unknowable, immeasurable, yet nevertheless concrete woof and warp of divine will and presence.
Then I look around.
I see a woman board a bus on a cold gray afternoon. Already seated, I watch as she makes her way down the aisle, her hand in the hand of a six-ish-year-old girl wearing a hot pink faux-fur jacket and white cowboy boots with rhinestone spurs — her daughter, no doubt. I think about how much the woman counts on the rest of us. She hopes to deliver her daughter safely home or to wherever else they are going. She hopes to deliver her daughter safely to adulthood and beyond, if you want to take it that far. If everyone on the bus plays by the rules, then the likelihood of her hopes being fulfilled are so much better.
We pay our money upon boarding or flash a transfer or prepaid metro card, and all our pooled resources go into a pot that lets any of us hop on the bus to go where we need or want to go — the woman and her daughter, and also that woman there holding a baby, and another woman carrying a jug of distilled water and a bag of potato chips, each of us with a different first language. We stay in our seats and keep our hands to ourselves. A sign tells all of us to give up the sideways front seats to those who are elderly or disabled, if requested. That means I’d have a seat if I broke my leg, and so would you. The woman across the aisle from me coughs without covering her mouth, while next to her sits an elderly woman and, kitty-corner, the mother holding the baby, and I think about how even this smallest transgression of camaraderie, this not moving one’s mouth to the crook of the elbow when coughing, is enough to take us all down.
I see a note in my e-mail inbox telling me that someone I care about has been sad and anxious — again. Just reading her note gives me a stomachache, knowing how serious her sadness and anxiety were the first time around. She will see a doctor soon, she will talk with her family, she will do any of a number of things to be as well as she can be. The last time, it passed after a chance encounter with a woman she’d never met before. Her friends had been praying — Lord, have mercy — and a stranger appeared who opened a way for her, and the sadness and anxiety lifted. The hope is that a doctor can guide. The larger hope is that people and circumstances are moving in the world to intersect with this woman in life-giving ways.
All of us, we are on the way, here to there, pulling up alongside or being pulled alongside of, in the middle of situations or worries or a long workday not yet over.
Hope is a big word, a huge word, yet I’ve been swinging it around so lightly. I hope: in e-mails, texts, and status updates. I hope: in conversations and phone calls. Through all the fervent but flip hoping for this and that, for you, for me, the word itself has been whispering to me. I’m trying to pay attention. I’ve written down sightings of the word, made notes on notecards, sat in front of blank pages trying to think and write about what hope is and means in quotidian life. I’ve been biding my time for thoughts to build, such that I could give the word the gravitas it deserved, but DQ beat me to it. Northbound on a highway out of town, I see the word on a billboard the height and length of a semitrailer truck. Adjacent to a generously stacked hamburger, a heaping portion of French fries, and a chocolate-dipped cone, “Hope you’re hungry!”
I keep thinking about that billboard’s slogan and its poor syntax. With the verb alone at the front, without a designated subject who hopes, no one is hoping on the billboard reader’s behalf. You alone better hope you’re hungry. You alone better hope you have a space for what’s offered, better hope you haven’t filled yourself up on lesser things, like chips before Thanksgiving dinner.
Hope in the Lord, say the psalmists and the prophets. Hope in the Lord, say ministers to congregations of travelers and bus riders, to mothers of girls with rhinestone spurs, to men who are hungry, to worried friends and lovers. We rally around those we know and love and join causes we believe in, but I wonder about the role each of us has in the hope-in-the-Lord transaction made between God and those outside our inner circles and pet projects, specifically between God and the random stranger — the stranger who indeed may not be all that random.
In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit writes, “I believe in hope as an act of defiance, or rather as the foundation for an ongoing series of acts of defiance.” In an act of defiance I’d like to pitch a ladder to that billboard, haul up a can of red paint, and add, with broad and bold roller strokes, the word WE, or even I, changing the message from one of direction to one of declaration. Someone is hoping something for you and not just hoping you enjoy your burger, or hoping you have fun, or hoping you have been found well in correspondence, but hoping something substantial for you. Maybe even hoping not only that you are hungry, but hoping that you are hungry for what is to come, hungry for the good that has been prepared. Here on a highway, in between points of departure and arrival, what better place for a marker of assurance that some human presence is alongside you in the hope-hunger-find-it-or-not cycle, because isn’t the loneliness of hoping alone part of the hopelessness that leaves us deeply hungry?
Look up gossamer in the dictionary and see “spider web,” a prick in my conscience for the last spider I killed as it crawled down my shower curtain. I read in the Psalms, an Orthodox version: “our years have, like a spider, spun out their tales.” In the gossamer hammock, our stories swing, entwined. A NOVA documentary from 2011, using lab experiments and an impressive line graph, showed that spider silk has more tensile strength then steel.
I see a woman I don’t know sitting in front of me in a church service, and she lays her head on the shoulder of the man sitting next to her. When she later straightens, he rubs her back and she slips her arm through his. It’s not a setting for romance, and it seems something is wrong. Later we pass in a hallway and I think I see sadness in her eyes. Lord, have mercy.
I read an essay some years ago written by a man who surreptitiously makes the sign of the cross over strangers by running his finger across his hand or his tongue across the roof of his mouth. You there, passing him on the sidewalk. You, idling next to him at a stoplight. Me too, if his and my paths were to cross . . . I hope. I like that idea and have since been doing it too, when I think of it, although I don’t think of it nearly enough. Maybe you’ve stood next to me in the grocery line and received the sign of the cross, hidden in me for you, as you put your lettuce and apples on the checkout counter. I wish I’d remembered to do this on the bus for the girl in the hot pink faux-fur jacket, for the woman with the chips, for the woman with the uncovered cough.
Forty years have passed, but I still remember an older woman, a stranger, who sat next to me, then a college student, on Chicago’s Ravenswood “L,” now known as the Brown Line, as I returned to campus from a solitary downtown excursion. In a conversation over a book I’d purchased, she seemed to see me in a way I had been longing to be seen. Hope you’re hungry! Hungry for what? Let me start a list.
I imagine a divinely woven gossamer net knotted with human will and presence. To the woman at the next table over in the coffee shop, to the boy who delivered my paper, I add my hope in the Lord to you and yours; little bits from here and there and the hope adds up to a future. The God who sees surely begets a people who see.