Setting Up the Pins

     A few years ago a summer edition of Southern Living came in the mail, featuring a big lady in a short pencil skirt, standing in the middle of a young okra patch. She was supposed to be a truck farmer, but we deduced that either 1) she was not or 2) the supreme cost of showing America her legs was weighed at the time and considered worth the suffering. I’d love to hear her after-thoughts on that, because, friends, okra is itchy. My mama’s exact quote after a quick glance was “She gonna be et up!”

     A farm in the South in late July is a microcosm of the Fall (you know, the Big One). We try to make it look nice, but there’s only so much we can do.

     On Pinterest, I often see pictures of chickens in a lush garden. It looks so wholesome, doesn’t it? But the chickens will eat your plants, destroy your mulch, poop in your walkways, and, worse of all, they will eat all the good bugs. An organic garden depends on it’s good bugs. So why does the photographer (or the farmer a minute before the photographer arrives) do this dreadful thing? Well, because the chicken pen is a mess. Chickens are gross. They made the ‘clean’ list only by the skin of their measly egg-tooth. They have no respect for our aesthetics and cleaning the chicken coop is that one chore that never seems critical until a guest comes to look at it.

     We have puppies just now. The anticipation of their arrival was like the thrill of every holiday in my life boiled down to sauce. I may be in danger of prematurely using up my feeling of excitement, but their advent did not disappoint. They are beautiful. I love the way they pile on top of each other and fall asleep limp. I love how naturally motherhood comes to dogs (God loves dogs) and how long our strung-tight Border Collie will lay still to feed them. It’s truly beautiful, but not picturesque, because 1) the kennel is near the chicken coop and 2) honey, we’ve got fleas.

     We’ve got fleas to the point of someone asking me what I did last week, and me standing there like a stuffed wombat, trying to think of something besides fleas, to the point of “no I can’t come, sorry, I have to give flea baths”, to the point of ads popping up on the screen for new and improved flea med formulas. Yep. It’s bad. It was a mild winter. We’re in the trees, and have no shortage of hosts, wild and domestic. I could list other reasons and research to find more, but really this is just the rural version of post-fall reality. Fleas. I remember my cousin saying incredulously when when he came to visit many years ago:  No WiFi? No Sweet-n-Low?  He had no idea.

     Summertime work can be frustrating. The objective shifts from thriving and advancing to maintaining and surviving. The work is no less important (maybe more so) but it is far more humbling. It’s the kind of work you’re ashamed to share, hesitant to own and glad to get rid of.  But if I don’t push-on in this work, I’m a fraud. It doesn’t matter that I have grand plans for another fountain, a black walnut field, a dinner party, a guest house and a camp-out when we light the big brush piles, if I don’t muck out the stalls, water the chickens, empty the dishwasher, mop the floor and yes, give flea baths— even though I will be doing all those things again at least by tomorrow. A Sara Groves song calls this setting up the pins for knocking them down. It’s the kind of work women have a lot of, in every season, and it’s where I experience much sanctification (read: aggravation). Because, of all things, I want very much to be doing, to be used and actively engaged in meaningful work. I told my dear friend, Sarah, this years ago. “Are you sure you just don’t want be seen doing those things?” she asked. Words evade me in express what could easily be communicated in the emoji of the face-palm.

     This month the curse seemed to bear down on me in every way, and the humility of how little I was accomplishing of any value could be illustrated in the day I found myself on my hands and knees, trying to identify the source of an unwholesome smell in someone else’s kitchen. No one was around to appreciate my efforts and no one was bothered by the smell. In dirty clothes and foggy glasses, I was moving around the floor, sniffing, like a four-legged Marco Polo, doggedly pursuing the stench, until it was found, at last: a rogue rotting potato, rolled under the refrigerator.  It didn’t feel like a contribution against the forces of darkness. It felt lowly. The word loser came to mind, from the long forsaken halls of sixth grade.

     My sister, Jesse, and I sat in a burger joint, waiting for her husband to meet us for an appointment. I was with her as chauffeur, body guard and glad sharer of the heaping pile of free pickles on the plate between us, though only one of us was pregnant. Her third baby will come in the spring- three in three years- and in three years of marriage, they are living between three houses, one that doesn’t have running water. Her husband is working to start a business, clear land, build a house, and is currently hand-drilling a well. She is potty training and heart training, packing bags, unpacking them and packing them again. A full time street evangelist posted on Facebook something to the effect of: If you are telling your children about the Great Commission, but not actually living it by going out, you are a hypocrite.

     Am I doing enough? She asked me. Why can’t I get ahead? Why aren’t I out there evangelizing? Why can’t I even get dinner on the table?

     I would have like to’ve, and maybe should’ve, had just the right answer to this, but instead I made like a good little Narcissist and said pitifully, “Meeee too.”  Thankfully (as my grandmother frequently has occasion to tell me) the Lord looks out for children and fools. Jesse moved to answer my confusion and fears in a way she wouldn’t have for herself.  “You can’t do every good thing, Sarie. Even Jesus didn’t do that.”

     What is my job?  I’m a personal assistant, a Girl-Friday. On a good day, I answer phones, sweep floors, set tables, plant fields, wipe noses, stock freezers, and sniff-out potatoes that don’t belong to me. On a bad day, I don’t appreciate it. I’m a servant. My job is simple. I do the will of Him who sent me. And if you are a Christian, dear reader, that’s your job too.  It may be lovely, and you should take a picture if you can. It may be ugly, even repulsive, at times. You may not have puppies or peonies in a vase or a baby in your womb. It may be lovely and lowly simultaneously. It may be hard to distinguish between the two. I think that’s the truth for most of us.

     So take your bare legs in the okra patch and throw your chickens in the garden if you want. We understand. The curse will find us all. There’s no need to photograph it. At the end of the day, the oft-quoted adage will ring true: You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.

     If this strikes you as bad news, all I can say is: Meeee too, sister. But take heart. You and I, this day, we can do the will of Him who sent us. We can do the work our hands find to do, and do it with all our might. And we can get up tomorrow morning and do it all again, God helping us.

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Overtime

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     She didn’t notice the clouds on the horizon, like a distant mountain range, or the cornflowers blooming by the railroad track, or the dead armadillo she hit in the early darkness that morning, still lying, swollen, on the highway. She didn’t think back on the day’s work: five surgeries, one unsuccessful, conflict among the nurses and a new set of forms to fill out. She thought about supper and how quickly she could get it on the table. She thought of the children, and how she must leave them again in a few hours, and she was filled with guilt.

    As she turned off Main Street, there stood a child on the roadside. Her heart fell, her stomach twisted, her throat tightened, all of it. It was her child— barely seven, skinny, suntanned, pigtailed, brown eyed, just a few freckles. Mary Jean. Her baby girl, with a suitcase and tear-streaked face.

    “Honey, get in here! What is wrong?”

    “I was running away,” she whimpered, with not much of an explanation.

    Ellen would remember this, in her old age, as the saddest moment of the hardest season of her life. She did what she always did— she prayed, a sort of guttural dispatch, in which she cast all her distressed organs, fear of what might have happened, and, for the time being, even the exhaustion, away from her. Then she took the situation by the horns and within minutes of getting home, opened up, along with green beans for supper, what her daddy would’ve called an “old fashioned can of whip-butt”.

    How could the older ones let such a thing happen?  Why would they?One had gone to the pool, without permission, and the other two, well, they helped Mary Jean pack. They didn’t think she’d get past the driveway, but told her to take extra socks anyway. So she spent the precious hours at home mediating and judging the complex relational turmoil of her four children.

    When the time came for her to get ready for night school, she carried Mary Jean up the stairs and let her sit on their bed. James would be home soon. They would have two minutes to exchange necessary information before she would have to go.

    She came and stood over the little girl who had wiggled herself under the covers.

    “Listen, baby girl. You can only run away when Mommy is at home. Okay? If you run away when Mommy is not at home, you’ll get in big trouble. Understand?”

    Mary Jean sucked in her breath dramatically, and nodded, “Can I sleep here?”

    “Yes. Daddy will be home soon.” She brushed the hair from the little forehead, kissed it, and turned off the light. She heard the sound of a car door slam. Good. They would have all of four minutes tonight, and they would need it.

     As she cracked the door shut, Mary Jean said, “But Mommy, if you were at home, why would I run away?”

    “That’s right, baby. Now go to sleep.”

This Land is Your Land

“The man who fights for his ideals is the man who is alive.”  Cervantes

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    Independence Day was (short of his own birthday) my grandfather’s favorite holiday. Last week, I attended a patriotic service at a local church. During the medley of the armed forces, feeling so keenly his absence and knowing how much he would have loved it, I realized that he held patriotism, or “love for the fatherland” as an ideal. He had five brothers in WW2, and he joined up as soon as he looked old enough. The army fed and clothed him. The army told him where to go and what to do and he obeyed because he clung to this ideal.

    But ideals collect barnacles. They get crusty with bad methodology and ugly with age. This often makes for what we call character, but it also makes for mistakes and regret. The trick, I think, is to check ourselves often, against the Scriptures and before others, giving them the right to chip away at the harmful appendages. That may be an overly simplified answer. I’m only twenty five— what do I know?

   I know I have ideals… and so do you, I hope.

   I know that my grandfather lived to see the stripping away of many barnacles- the false layers we think are so important. It was painful for him. He could no longer believe in what he called “the new army”, nor in the Republicans (a term hitherto synonymous with the elect), and – most painful of all- he could no longer believe that many of the things he personally did for his country were right. This hurt something fierce and I think for a while he thought the ideal itself was dead from this stripping, that this deep motivation of his life had all been a huge lie.

    But it wasn’t. Love for the fatherland, for home, is good, and the more local and specific this love, I think, the better. Pop loved the United States, but he especially loved Georgetown, Kentucky. He loved the rundown sharecropper’s cabin down Long Lick Pike. It was always there in his heart, fit to bursting to tell you about it, if you’d just stick around for a darn minute.

   Ecclesiastes says, “It is good that you grasp one thing and also not let go of the other; for the one who fears God comes forth with both of them.”  I feel this first part. So often I cling to my ideal with one hand and in the other is… well, life. There in my little knotty hand is today— reality, sin and what I have to work with. Sometimes the frustration in this hand can make me despair of holding on to the ideals with the other. Or the earnest grasp on the ideals can make me desperate to forsake my hand on the present. Will I come forth with both of them? Will you? Will we see our ideals made flesh in our lives?  

    Maybe so, my brother-in-law would say, in a voice that sounds like probably not. Get used to disappointment, kid. But hold fast to those ideals all the same. Home. Marriage. Friendship. The Church. These things are good, and though ever defeated, they will survive all conquerors. Home will stand at the grave of transience and marriage at the grave of shacking up. There is something in them that is like God. What is superficial will fall away and the foundations may quake. When you see marriages fall apart and churches fail, when you can no longer be proud of your nation, when friends forsake you, when you must leave your own home to walk again as a stranger in a strange land, cling to them still, cling to them all the more, dear reader. Let the Lord define them. Fear Him. Then, at last, though you may be weary and ready to leave this old world, He will bring you into the land of ideals—

Into the land of those who are alive.

Table for Three

   My Nanny and I went to visit Mrs. Ruby the other day at the nursing home. She is one of the happiest people I know, while also being honest. She was born ninety-six years ago during a snowstorm in North Dakota, into a community of Norwegian immigrants. After the war, she and her husband returned there and built a house together, and she misses it.

    We brought blueberries, one of her many favorite things, and sat on the bed and talked to her. We talked, mostly, about her room, which, even in her pleasantness, fell from perfection as totally as the demons themselves. She has lived here eight years and it has taken her that long to tire of pretending that she likes it. There is not enough space for her few possessions, the door has no lock (enabling old men to wander in at all hours) and the windows overlook the congestion of downtown Augusta’s medical complex. She is not allowed to hang anything on the walls.

    “What would you say that was?” she asked, pointing to the one abstract and mass-produced picture.

    “Maybe goldfish?” I said, squinting, head cocked.

    “Hmph.”

    There was a mirror over the little sink, but directly in the middle of it was a large metal paper towel holder.

     “I can’t see myself,” she said, moving on, clockwise. “That blocks my face completely. I asked them to move it. They just smiled and nodded. I may be old and senile, but you have to be some kind of stupid to design something like that. But the worst, the worst, is the food. It’s horrible to see what they do to vegetables. It’s a massacre, that’s what it is.”

   Visiting her in this place, even with the offering of blueberries, was not enough. Mrs. Ruby wanted out. The difference I’ve found, between girls and women, is the wherewithal to follow through.  I had all sorts of plans as a little girl. The plans continue to be hasty and ambitious, but results follow, and people even move in response, most of the time. It is so hard for the aged to lose this ability. It is a special, tenuous gift to be able to say, “Let’s get out of here and find some place good to eat!” and then accomplish it, in a matter of minutes. If this doesn’t seem like a marvel, you can neither remember your childhood, nor imagine your old age, and you’re missing out.

    So I found myself driving through lunchtime traffic with two of my favorite ladies, two delightful and fragile and trusting ladies, crossing the river bridge, getting a little corner table at Antonio’s and ordering pizza and salad. Nanny and I held hands and prayed, unable to get Mrs. Ruby’s attention, and then foolishly ate like Marines. For the next two hours, we sat and watched as Mrs. Ruby feasted. She ate the onions first, then the cucumbers with the dressing, then the pizza, picking it up with her hands, then the lettuce, all the while moving slowly, carefully, pleasurably, forgetful of us and absorbed in the experience. She ate it all, every last bit.

    I had just read that morning the verses in Deuteronomy about the Feast of Tabernacles. If there ever was a dispersed Israelite, living in a makeshift present, Mrs. Ruby is that one.  “Thou shalt rejoice in thy feast,” it says, and she did. With joy for what was— the home in North Dakota, the pheasants and moose, her own kitchen full of vegetables treated right, her husband and children. With joy in what is— the little table at a downtown pizza joint. And with joy in what’s to come— soon, a better feast than any she has known.

    There was a routine cognizance test waiting for her when we got back. The nurse had a list of mechanical questions. Can you spell ‘world’ backwards? Can you draw two octagons overlapping? Would you write me a sentence at the bottom of this page?

     Mrs. Ruby took it bravely on the chin. I thought of a few questions of my own. Could you leave your home in the vulnerability of your old age, cheerfully? Could you be bossed, herded and institutionalized and still have the heart to love blueberries and onions and cucumbers? Still have the pluck to enter the outside world and return again, unshaken? Could you wake up every morning in one of these unfeeling rooms and exhale thank you?

    As the nurse turned to leave, I looked over her shoulder at the clipboard. At the bottom, Mrs. Ruby had written in her clear, familiar script:

    It is a beautiful day to be in Augusta, Georgia.

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Go and Write

This Spring I went through an online writing mentorship with Lore Wilbert, one of my favorite writers. It was a momentous, unforgettable and tremendously helpful experience. I wish it had lasted a year!  I hope (true to the heart of mentorship) I came to resemble her in a small way during those twelve weeks. I think she plans to do another one in the Fall, so if you would like to improve in your writing, have an honest editor, and gain a friend, look out for the application on Sayable

My sister and her husband are living next door to us just now, and sometimes I join them for dinner.  (Sometimes I am even canny enough to catch dinner at both houses.)

    “Do you think the roast is tough, darling?” she asked him tonight.

    “No,” he said, then- “Well, what sort of animal is it?”

    And I guess the writing life has taken me for sure, gentle reader, as I didn’t remain mentally present for her reply, for thinking what an excellent intro this would be.

    These last twelve weeks, I’ve had the surreal experience of having a stranger look into an aspect of my life, an area where she has wisdom and expertise, and speak into it. I expected her to strip me down one side and up the next. And she did, in a way, but not how I imagined. What she did was as intimidating, but more memorable, and certainly more life-giving.

    She named me. She said, “You are a Writer.”

    There was joy in this moment. There was a leaping up to answer the call. There was belief, finally, for this woman with a well-tuned ear could have no motive to flatter me. But these at-long-last-gifts were quickly surpassed by sobriety. My own: Will I look back and think: I wasted this? And hers: Will you bury your talent in fear? Do you think God is a harsh master like the man in Matthew’s parable? What has He ever done to you to deserve such a thought? Who told you you were a bad writer? Who lied to you? she said.

    I had read her piece on asking Jesus-like questions, penetrating deeper, searing cleaner than straight facts, but I wasn’t ready for them. Who lied to me? No one, I said quickly. But in long sad after-thoughts, I knew. It was me.

    The lies are born of fear and distrust. Fear of humility, distrust of God.

    I fear committing the thoughts of my heart to paper. There is some health in this fear. One thing that happens when you become a woman is you get invited to congregate with women. I have a quick wit and a much quicker tongue. I get in trouble- if not obviously and before all, then in my heart and in secret. I’ve learned that I cannot even go to breakfast with an old friend without praying over my words beforehand. But still, the spoken word doesn’t scare me so much. I can always end an awkward sentence with- you know?- and then shut up to hear if she does or not.

   But the written word is something else. It feels arrogant, even in approaching it. Or maybe the deeper truth is that it feels like it might be perceived as arrogant. There are so many good and worthy writers. This girl just likes the sound of her own voice, they will say. Who does she think she is? The self-love in me cowers from this. The sound of my own voice says to myself: Shut up.

    Is God a harsh taskmaster? These twelve weeks, I have been distant from him. Such a strange thing to do, after being given something so kind, like a name. But I’ve been nursing a bitterroot of hurt in me. Names given implies names withheld. The unspeakable comfort found in God’s sovereignty is unspeakably painful sometimes. The writing life means criticism. It means conflict. All I wanted was to be loved. But in my name was a cross, a call to come and die. Sitting across from a beautiful and dynamic young woman at breakfast this morning, speaking friendly to her with no regrets, I spoke roughly to myself. Suddenly I was aware of my weathered age as if it were an actual old woman at the table with us. You were Beloved and now you are Useful. One day you will be Not So Useful, that voice I love and protect so carefully said.

    But work, it has a way of keeping deep thinkers from digging a pit to bury themselves in. The breakfast meeting was over and the needs came bearing down, as they mercifully do. The day laid itself down for me to walk through. After dinner, I bathed my toddler niece and helped her into pajamas. She asked for a tea party, so quickly on the floor, we congregated as women, with the little cups and saucers. She handed me a wooden piece of cake and said gently, “This is my body, given for you, Sarie.” A harsh taskmaster? No. Not my Jesus.

    Who told me I was a bad writer? Why am I ashamed? Why do I long for a veil to cover my face again? This is not gospel living. Our ministry ought to be a wide-open and many-splendored thing. With unveiled face I was made to reflect the glory of the Lord. Yes, I will mess up. Yes, my faults will be evident. That’s the whole point. I will decrease. Until my dying breath, I will go lower still. But He will increase, and in his expanse, in his fullness, I find my courage.

    I am finding it even now, in my willingness to write these lines, though I left the gate open and the goats into the garden, though I forgot to do what I was told, though I frustrate those I love and spell words miserably wrong, though I am seen clean through for exactly what sort of animal I am, I will live like I believe the Lord is good. He has made me well. He calls me by name. He compels me to pray, “May I write truth as I live truth.” And wonder of wonders, he can even make it so.

  Who lied to you? As I walked back to my house in the dark, with the clouds covering the moon, Lore’s question came to me once more. This woman spoke to me, into me, because she first wrote bravely, initiating, communicating, reaching out and down, planting trees for me to eat from, this woman I know and don’t know, who calls herself “Lowly”, who hurts as I do, who in all these things reflects Christ, she speaks truth. She spoke it in my name. Yes, I am small. Yes, I still think I’m too hasty to write a book and too bashful to be a blogger. But I will live as I am written, and speak as I am called. I will trade my talents in humility and courage, grateful to the Giver, copying the Creator, as she has taught me. I will go lower than I have ever gone, but I will not be afraid.

     Oh Worm Jacob, Oh little Israel, Beloved. Go and write.

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Lightkeepers

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We stood outside the church and talked about life in a general way, relying heavily on each other’s imaginations to fill in and flesh out the truth. Our chief hurts were concerning others, and their stories weren’t ours to tell. At least not yet. Maybe one day, they will be like waters gone by, and easily remembered. But not today. Today they are like the walls in front of us, impenetrable and hard, looming over, blocking the light.

“Why, why are you so anxious?” I asked the question out loud, but to myself.

“Oh, I can tell you why!” Kimberly answered comically. “I’ve got a list!”

Laughing weakly, I imagined us neatly pinning our lists to the walls that we beat our heads against. A lot of good that will do us. This is heavy lifting. This is work for Jesus— and he tarries.

Just a few days before, I had been on holiday at the sea with friends. We must’ve looked every bit as appreciative as we were, as we hauled it to the lighthouse door.

“In all my years here, I’ve never seen three girls more eager to climb them steps,” the keeper said.

We were eager, as if we ran to see The Good News itself, coming home, at last.

When you’ve prayed about something for so long, it’s easy to start thinking you’ve done it wrong. Although I can improve my life and prayers, for sure, God is not waiting for an ideal formula or susceptible to my manipulation. And especially in the case of anxiety over someone else’s sin or troubles, and not our own, we have to accept it as a thorn in the side, a crook in the lot, something to be endured. Watching the horizon is hard, but that’s what light-keepers do.

Mrs. Alice held my hands in hers.

“She’s bossed me around all my life!” her sister yelled from the other room.

“And she hasn’t yet gone astray,” Mrs. Alice whispered.

“Let me tell you something right quick, Sarah. I don’t know what’s weighing on you, sweet girl, but you got two things to do. Only two things. You gotta love and keep on loving, and you gotta pray. That’s it.”

“None of your prayers will come weeping home,” my sister said, quoting a Puritan, who may in fact have been quoting his sister.

Maybe it will get better in this life, and maybe it won’t. But someday, all God’s fitful children will sigh deeply and turn over in their beds, straining their ears for trouble and hearing none, they will remember that it is no more, and smiling into the pillow, they will sleep like the faithful lovers of the shipwrecked come home.

 

the Early Rains

It has been the wettest season I can remember, and still after all these weeks, I don’t mind it.

It is good to see the pond full and to hear the waterfall of the spill-way, roaring from the house. We have a whole series of little pots and pans in the Carolina Room to catch the leaks, and at night, when I get still, the sound of the tink and splash is lovely to sleep to.

I’m going away for several days and I always get this desperate tug of homesickness the night before leaving, even for just a short time. So after chores and dinner, in my nightgown and rubber boots (my great-grandmother’s famous ensemble), I headed down to the creek to see it, wild and rushing, breaking out in new streams all over, one last time. And now I’m back and wet and I’m pretty sure there is something crawling on me somewhere, but it was grand.

I haven’t posted pictures from around here in a long time, so here’s a few from tonight, and this week.

I hope your world is wet, dear reader, but not too wet, and that you are dry tonight and happy. When you ask yourself, “Where am I?” I hope you can answer, “Right here.” and be glad to know it.IMG_0020.jpgIMG_0027.jpgIMG_0035.jpgIMG_0054.jpgIMG_0046.jpgIMG_0059.jpgIMG_0004.jpgIMG_0010.jpgIMG_0016.jpg

Freedom Also to Stay

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   On road trips when I was little, we’d eventually pass through a forgotten agrarian town with scattered well kept farms and a mom-and-pop store. “Look out the window, girls,” Daddy would say. “These are my people.”

    That’s how I felt in the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky, when I read my first Wendell Berry novel, Hannah Coulter, at the age of seventeen.

    I’m descended from the bluegrass state since the dawn of time, though uprooted in the last generation. My unconscious tongue still holds the hillbilly dialect (with tard for tired , pillar for pillow, harsh for hush). I grew up on stories of great floods, duels over bird-dogs, and many a much diluted ‘worter dranking party’ by the light of the moon. I heard tell of good Judge Barkley, Mr. Willoughby that owned the general store and pretty Miss Parish the schoolteacher (who could sure wear out a little backside with a peach tree switch). From my granddad’s lap, I memorized the recipe for removing freckles in a muddy stump, braced myself for catfish noodling, horse cutting and train jumping, and regretted this old world that forced a young boy to join a war just to get some peace.

    So yes, I felt at home in Port William, sure enough, but it was more than merely romanticism for the olden days, for the earnest native tongue of Wendell Berry called me not to the past, but to the future.  “I wish I could tell you what to do,” my Mama’s often said. “But I’m afraid all I can tell you is what not to do.”

    In the same way Hannah Coulter and Jayber Crow instructed me. They told their beautiful, heartbreaking stories, and then waited to see what I would do about it. I was itching to do something, that seventeenth and eighteenth year.

    “You’ve gotta go,” my parents said, but I knew it wasn’t because they wanted me to, but because it’s what everybody did. We millennials heard it everyday. You can be anything you want! Anything! The president? Yes! An astronaut? Yes! A home-maker? Um, no. You see, I had just recently acquired freedom from public school. And I wanted freedom, but I wanted freedom, mostly, from what everybody did. I wanted freedom from the American dream of moving up, from specialization, from endless accreditation, from well-paying prisons, from disassociation, from homelessness, from street-lights, conditioned air and city water. I knew what I didn’t want. But what did I want? I wasn’t sure.

    Until I met the Branch Family of Port William.

    “Every one of them seemed to have a perfect faith in the education they got outside of school, which they didn’t even call “education”. Out of school, they learned what they evidently thought they needed most to know: to keep house, to raise a garden or a crop, to care for livestock, to break a mule or shoe one, to fix a motor and almost anything else, to hunt, fish, trap, preserve a hide, hive a swarm, cook or preserve anything edible, and to take pleasure in such things. To learn things they didn’t know, they asked somebody or they read books. They were a lot like their friends the Amish. Compared to nearly everybody else, the Branches have led a sort of futureless life. They have planned and provided as much as they needed to, but they take little thought for the morrow. They aren’t going any place, they aren’t getting ready to become anything but what they are already are, and so their lives are not fretful and hankering. And they are all still here, still farming. They are here, and if the world lasts they are going to be here for quite a while… They survive and go on because they like where they are and what they are doing, they aren’t trying to get up in the world, and they produce more than they consume… It doesn’t seem to bother them that while they are making crops and meat and timber, other people are making only money that they sometimes don’t even work for.”

    “If I had ‘venture capital’ to invest”, said Hannah Coulter, “ I would invest it in the Branches.”

    In the context of the Port William stories, this rootedness was more than just a earthy ideal that I am naturally geared for (though that’s the truth), it was clearly the way rural America maintained their land, preserved their families, and perhaps most importantly, retained their sanity. The abandonment of the agricultural small town destroyed Western culture and ushered in the tyranny of our modern state, not to mention the tyranny of the modern mind. This I came to believe at eighteen, with the crusading spirit that defines that tender age and you can only imagine the result. I had no venture capital, but I had my life ahead of me and many acres of good, responsive land. (“Ain’t nothing wrong with it,” Burley Coulter would’ve said.)

    I’m glad my parents once said, ‘You’ve got to go’, and then when the time drew near, ‘You can go’, for, like Jayber Crow, “in my freedom I pointed to Port William, like a compass needle points north”, only my ‘Port William’ was the home I would try to make and bless, God helping me.

    “Maybe I could stay,” I said, mind made up.

    “Maybe you could,” they said, and we all grinned as if we had good sense.

    So this bit of earth in the foothills of South Carolina, with it’s mottled sandy loam and red clay dirt, with the hardwood hill tops and mountainous gullies, with the old homesites and Indian trails, became mine and there are few things in this world I’m more passionate about.

I heard a history teacher say once that when the Pilgrims landed here there weren’t any jobs…. just lots of work. That first year brought dairy goats, bee colonies, a garden expansion and pecan orchard. The following years have been no less visionary, if not always viable. Right now, I look out the window across the pond to see the Longhorn cattle herd, circled and surveyed by (merciful heavens) a border collie.

    I will turn twenty-six this year. I am a farmer, a gardener, a housekeeper, a caregiver, a barber (yes, like Jayber) and if I live as long as him, I guess I’ll have become a gravedigger, too. It hasn’t been easy. (“It was far from perfect,” as he said, “because I was far from perfect.”) But it’s the truth that anywhere I might have gone, I’d have taken myself. There is no geographical cure this side of the resurrection of the dead.

This is my story, in part and thus far. It’s descriptive, not prescriptive. If I were to prescribe anything, it would be simply this: Just as sure as there is freedom to go, there ought to be freedom, also, to stay.

    And if for some reason you don’t want to stay… don’t read Wendell Berry.

 

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Look and See

The roots and bulbs and seeds were tired of waiting, and as there was no lion-of-winter lurking outside to hold them in, Spring has come early to the Southeast, and that’s quite alright with me, the Robins, the mosquitos and everyone in-between.

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Here are native wildflowers you can find right now, near rivers and creeks and rock ledges that hold a little water, with thanks to my earthy Mama who frequently called me out of the creek-bed when I was little, collecting rocks and catching frogs, to make me see what was blooming on the banks.  She said I’d want to know one day, and now that day has come.

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Behold the lovely Trout Lily (Erythronium Americanum) of Liliacease, the Lily Family.  She’s the reason we first drop down into the woodlands to flower-hunt in the Spring, hauling cameras and identification books, usually on the rumor that someone somewhere has already spotted her.  One of my favorite things about wildflowers is the foliage.  With cultivated varieties, they concentrate on the flower- the bigger the better- often to the detriment of the leaves.  The Trout Lily is so-called for the mottled basal leaves, similar to the speckled trout.

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These are the flowers of the Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone Americana).  They are very light purple to violet, the stem is hairy and the foliage is round and lobed, just like the name says, however the foliage is notably and strangely absent this year.  It could be the premature Spring-  but hopefully the leaves will come up soon and all will be well.

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The petite and subtle Early Saxifrage could be passed by without notice as it clings to slopes, ledges and rocks.  The name Saxifrage in the latin means “rock-breaker”.

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The above two pictures are of False Rue-Anemone, not to be confused with Rue-Anemone, though they are both in the Buttercup Family.   This is a rare find, only found in basic-mesic forests.

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Spring-Beauties, or Wild Potato (Claytonia virginica) bring the first cheery mass of color to the new year.   There is a little tiny potato attached to the root system that is good to eat, although the quantity needed for a meal would require many hours of preparation, but still it’s good to know!   If only we could find a tree with sap that tasted like gravy, I’d happily be a woods-dweller.

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Now here’s a special one.  One of the easiest of the Spring-bloomers, most commonly called Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) it also goes by many other names including Red Puccoon, Red Indian Paint, Turmeric, Snakebite and Pauson, which indicate all the myriad uses of the plant, from the dye and paint made from the juice, to the acrid powder of the dried root, to the highly toxic properties of the foliage.  It is in Papaveraceae  (the Poppy Family) and contains a compound, sanguinarine, that inhibits plaque formation on teeth and was harvested many years for this purpose.  It is now produced by a larger, faster-growing plume poppy.

The foliage of the Mayapple and Trillium are unfurling, with the blooms to join the late-season wildflowers, like Shooting-Star and Jack-in-the-Pulpit.

But right now (this very minute–get your boots on!) there are so many other lovely things to see, like moss, lichen, fungi and the dry golden leaves of the beech-tree, holding tight, adding to the beauty as long they can.

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So go outside and look and see!

The Rainbabies

The last two mornings have begun for me with a walk across the way to check the cows. They are pasturing in the Old Man’s Field just now and that’s my favorite spot.  There is a hardwood hillside overlooking the field and you can see for miles up there, all the way to the little white church my mother was baptized in. There is a glorious beech tree, and majestic white oaks sloping down to the old home site, surrounded by mule plowed terraces now planted in pines.  The ground is fertile and pushes up white rocks.  I love this place in every season. I love it even in the rain, sometimes most in the rain.

For it was raining this morning, cold rain, blowing sideways, heavy all around, clinging to the eyelashes, soaking the hair.

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We have two new calves and more on the way. They are very strong and happy.  Do they think the world is always this cold, I wonder?  Won’t they be surprised when summer comes?

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I didn’t like the cows much at first because they aren’t as friendly as the goats and horses, but I have come to love them for their wildness and they’ve come to expect me coming ’round I guess. Our deal is simple: I don’t get too chummy and they don’t kill me. I tried to make a deal like this: I’ll take your picture if you don’t mess with my pecan trees, but they weren’t interested.

IMG_0033.jpgA line from a favorite book, Jayber Crow, ran on repeat in my mind on the way back home (perhaps because my mind was as frozen as my body and it stuck, like a record, until it broke free at last by the incomparable balm of not one, but two, cups of English Breakfast):
It had been raining, and it was still raining. It was going to rain.

And in this good world of insulated coats, wood burning stoves, Christmas check-lists, neglected books and thirsty seeds… so be it.

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(My friend Emily may perhaps read this, and may be glad  and much relieved to know that I am three very happy chapters into the book she loaned me all those months ago.)