Monday, May 12, 2008

Old Damp Bench

The old wooden bench was damp but I sat on it all the same. I wanted to be just outside the crowd gathering in the picnic shelter. The sky was overcast with a promise of rain, and the bursts of wind from Lake Lanier made me shiver a bit, silly me who had come to the woods dressed for a hot day on such a gloomy morning.

I crossed my legs and started looking around. The whole place was overwhelmingly green with patches of gray where the clouds showed through. A recent drought had severely reduced the lake level, leaving large swaths of barren ochre soil between the grassy banks and the water, and the boat docks hanging high with only mud and rock beneath them looked forlorn and irrelevant. Sure, I thought, when the times get tough someone is bound to become forlorn and irrelevant.

I directed my attention to the bustle inside the shelter. It was a gathering of two congregations for an outdoor Sunday service followed by a picnic. Already one end of the shelter area was busy for the worship music while the other end for the cooking, which reminded me of the story of Mary and her sister Martha when Jesus visited their home. According to the Gospel, Mary stayed at Jesus' side to listen to his teaching while Martha was totally occupied with preparing the goodies in the kitchen. Guess who got the approval from the Lord.

Soon the Mary camp was quietly attentive to the sermon and prayers while the Martha camp started to grill meat and deep-fry eggrolls. Not sure about the Marys, but it looked like the Marthas were enjoying themselves a great deal. They were chatting and laughing while their hands were deftly performing magic on the raw food. The resulted delicious smell was wafting towards the other end of the shelter and more than once turned heads in the Mary camp.

I chuckled and studied the crowd more closely, and it was then that my mood turned sober. Despite the merry occasion, most of the faces I saw looked drained, strained, and very much unattractive. Except for the very young, the mark of a hard life was unmistakably stamped in those lackluster eyes and sagging mouth corners, in the sallow complexion, and in the expensive best clothes that somehow managed to look wretched. Amid nature's lavish manifestation of vigorous beauty, this group of its highest form of life seemed twistedly incongruous.

At the spiritual end of the shelter, the preacher was urging his audience to rejoice in the Lord. He too did not look exactly like Mr Joy with his long, droopy face and a substantial paunch awkwardly sagging inside his shapeless suit. I wondered how many people would be convinced that eternal joy was possible by such a dreary messenger.

My dark reflections somehow made me more conscious of the chilly dampness of the bench, so I stood up in annoyance and strode downhill towards the lake shore. On a stretch of yellowish sand by the water some kids were engaged in rod-fishing. With this kind of wind I doubted that they would ever catch anything, still I stood watching them for a while. Then to my surprised delight, the sun was peeping out from behind the scattering clouds and the water hesitantly changing from gray to turquoise. The wind had also weakened to a breeze, and I was startled by the triumphant yell of one of the fishing boys.

It looked like that old damp bench would have a chance to dry after all.

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