Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Living in Eternity

It took a cancer diagnosis to cure poet Wilmer Mills of discouragement and malaise

Dear Family and Friends,

I’m getting stronger every day, and I continue to be amazed at the expressions of encouragement and support that you all have been giving me and my family. Apart from dealing with a terminal disease, I was very discouraged in general before getting sick, and your messages have instantly healed me of that malaise. And I want you to know that I can really feel the spiritual and emotional impact of your prayers and good wishes in a physical way.

While in the hospital, Kathryn would bring in her computer and read aloud to me the things you have written. This had a powerful effect on me, both your words and the fact of her reading them out loud, giving them flesh in the air. It placed you in real time with me in the same room. I think that if I had read your messages silently to myself it wouldn’t have had the same impact. It literally helped me breathe better and more deeply. After getting home, I’d find myself standing on the back porch taking deep breaths, intoxicated by air and light and hope. Despite my bleak prognosis, I now see everything in front of me as a space of infinite possibility, within certain limitations, with a full and nourishing sense of Time.

For the past ten years or so it seems that all I think about and write about is Time, but something about learning that I have a form of liver cancer that is ultimately incurable has given me an amazing sense of clarity about the subject. As with my mode of writing in traditional metrical verse, the limitation actually leads to the greatest freedom. Your caring, hopeful words within my new limitation of time are also part of the expansive clarity I now feel, and I want to try to make sense of why that is.

Since being ill, I have not been able to shave, and it has surprised me how much my beard has turned gray without my knowing it. This, combined with my sallow eyes and hollow cheeks, leaves me looking like a photograph of a Civil War Soldier’s ghost. It’s also striking how this makes me resemble old pictures of my own ancestors. Strangely, this is a comforting realization, as if being face-to-face with mortality shows me more clearly who I am. It reminds me of something the Southern writer, Andrew Lytle, told me once when I was a student. When he turned ninety-five, I asked him how that felt, and he said that the years didn’t mean anything because he had already begun to live in the sense of eternity. I now know what he meant.

He didn’t intend to invoke the Christian heaven or anything theological but rather a way of being apart from clocks. In Greek thought there are two ways of viewing time: Chronos and Kairos. Chronos Time is chronological and measurable. Kairos Time is more open-ended and expansive such that one can experience an “eternity” in a brief instant. It is not a cold finality at all. While we mainly live in Chronos Time, it is possible to experience Kairos as a place in which to abide and to breathe deeply without respect to calendars and deadlines. Too often we live only for the clock and fail to notice how, in the absence of incremental time, we would be more able to see the pattern in the rug, how the stained glass windows of our lives make sense as wholes and not as mere pieces.

But no one needs to get a terminal cancer to enter this place. The simplest way to enter the fullness of time is by breathing our words aloud to each other, and often, with love and hope. The miracle of spoken language is that it insists on face-to-face contact, or, in the case of a letter, it brings the speaker’s spirit into the room in a real sense and in real time at the right velocity, the speed of breathing. It has the tempo of people eating a meal together. In this sense, Kairos Time and spoken language are two sides of the same Koinonia.

As someone who has just begun to live in the sense of eternity, both in Andrew Lytle’s sense and in a sense of a Christian afterlife, I can’t resist pointing out how this illustrates what it means to say that Jesus was “Word made flesh.” We hear that expression so much and often don’t think about what it really means. Jesus never wrote anything; He spoke everything. He was sent here to talk to us. Every word he spoke came out of a living, breathing body with lungs and throat and tongue. That’s the most basic meaning of words being made flesh.

In the hospital while I was having blood drawn, tests run, and chemo dripped into me, Kathryn often read the Psalms aloud to me in French, the language of her heart. She has done this from time to time during our marriage as well, and it has often struck me as a happy peculiarity of ancient Hebrew that it sounds most beautiful in modern French. But I’ve been wrong about this. The beauty and power of the Psalms comes both from the truth behind the words and from having them read aloud in any language.

This dynamic relates to the strength you have given me with your words, and reveals the power of God that has sustained me my whole life. Psalm 139 is one of my favorite psalms, and I’d love for you to ask someone to read it to you out loud. It will likely move you in ways that you could never have expected. Don’t be surprised if you feel a new closeness with the person who is reading, or if you find yourself stepping into Kairos, where time is full and always ripe, where every invocation is also the perfect benediction.