The Lazy Days Of Summer–And God

The New York Times last Sunday asked two contemporary American poets to reflect on the long days of summer. The poems were accompanied with photographs inspired by the poems. What a lovely idea, I thought.

I was attracted to a poem by Ada Limón called “What It Looks Like to Us and the Words We Use.” Here is the poem:

All these great barns out here in the outskirts,

Black creosote boards knee-deep in the bluegrass.

They look so beautifully abandoned, even in use.

You say they look like arks after the sea’s

dried up, I say they look like pirate ships,

and I think of that walk in the valley where

J said, You don’t believe in God? And I said,

No. I believe in this connection we all have

to nature, to each other, to the universe.

And she said, Yeah, God. And how we stood there,

low beasts among the white oaks, Spanish moss,

and spider webs, obsidian shards stuck in our pockets,

woodpecker flurry, and I refused to call it so.

So instead, we looked up at the unruly sky,

its clouds in simple animal shapes we could name

though we knew they were really just clouds—

disorderly, and marvelous, and ours.

This feels like summer to me. Though my childhood memories are crowded with images from the Southwest desert and the stark beauty of red rock country, still there are those clouds with animal shapes, the weathered barns, the trees and moss and spider webs and a woodpecker’s flurry. It all sounds so familiar. And I love the pace here too, time to gaze into the sky, time to collect obsidian shards, time to soak in the abandoned feel of it all, time even for a walk and talk in the valley below.

Inevitably, though, the lazy-day-feel evokes a chance to talk about God. But the way such conversations go these days, mention of God prompts an immediate, abrupt denial that God could be hovering over any of this. After all, you know, the clouds “were really just clouds.” To the question from “J”—you mean “You don’t believe in God?”—the answer is emphatically “No.” To be sure there is a quick explanation of what has replaced God—vague notions of nature and love and our connection to the universe—but good Lord, don’t be stupid, these have nothing to do with God. Right?

I am puzzled by this need to feature a denial of God in the center of this otherwise lovely poem. The poem suddenly is no longer about summer days, which would have been enough for me. Rather it becomes mainly about the poet’s presumably courageous rejection of God. That gets me to asking: If she really doesn’t believe in God, quite emphatically so, why should anyone care about her denial? Why should she care enough to fill the center of her poem with denial?

Well, this is the way God-talk goes these days. Can you imagine The Times or any other regular newspaper or magazine publishing a poem or an article where God is the vibrant, animating center of the piece? That would violate all kinds of dogma of our day. No, apparently we need to be reminded, constantly it seems, that God does not exist. The editorial strategy is to publish as much as possible about the non-existence of God, just to make sure we get it.

I am left puzzling why the need to keep telling us, endlessly, that you don’t believe in God? I can only surmise, I guess, that mystery still haunts the awareness of almost everyone. We need to get a handle on the mystery of death or suffering, the mystery of love and beauty, the mystery of loss and memory and radiance. It’s all out there, and we know it, but please don’t invoke the name of God around such things. Such mystery, apparently, has no name.

As I read this poem on Sunday, it made me a little sad. I am sorry the poet feels the need to let me know she does not believe in God. I used to be defensive about these kinds of dismissals. I thought they were an attack on my own belief, something against which I needed to argue. But that’s over for me. Now I want simply to declare that God just magnificently exists–whether this poet or The Times or any writer knows it or not. I am no longer interested in a vote whether God exists. I guess I am sad because too many people are missing the beauty beneath the beauty, the love beneath the love, missing in fact the animating center of the universe that makes a lazy summer day so radiant.