Mrs. Ruby at Sea

    A few months ago, in the late summer, I went into the War Veterans Home and came out again with Mrs. Ruby’s suitcase. Mrs. Ruby followed behind ever so slowly, and she laughed the slowest deepest laugh you’ve ever heard, like a beautiful mother Ent. A beech tree, she would be, strong and white and golden, the last standing of a generation cut down.

    We were going to Mrs. Georgia’s house in Beaufort, South Carolina, on just a finger of solid ground in a bay called Land’s End. We made a party of six women, with three widows, Georgia, Marie and Ruby, and three single girls, Annie, Laura and myself. Six women bound by friendship and sea-changes, bound by death and life again, bound by love for the sweet green marsh and the rhythmic tide.

   We were grieving. Each felt the other’s. Sorrow was our seventh guest there in the old house. There is freedom in grief’s company, not a morbid shunning of suffering or a worship of it either, but as an honest word among many words, like love and beauty, and certainly not the last one. In this place you could let it go a while. Let it take care of itself. You could think about your friends. You could find yourself comforting them in the bearing of your sorrow. You could say, “Look at that shrimp boat!” and “How about lunch?” and you could, like Laura, laugh at something silly you read and read it out loud so they can laugh at you instead.

  In Mr. Standfast by John Buchan, one of my favorite novels, it is prophesied among a group of friends that the war they found themselves in would cost the best of them, and you know the character Peter will have to die before the end. We brought Mrs. Ruby to the sea because some such prophesy was made concerning her. The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. She was having strokes. She was sleeping too long. So she would have a holiday. She would have a long car ride down dark roads of mossy oaks, and over precarious narrow bridges. She would eat good food all the day. She would sleep in a real home. She would be surrounded by windows. She would take a shower outside, with a bird’s nest in the beam of the stall, a “million dollar shower” she would say. She would laugh her deep, slow laugh again and again at the young girls. She would see the ocean, one last time.

   One evening this autumn, Mrs. Ruby fell.

   “Well, that’s not exactly true,” she told me from the hospital bed, “It was really more of a slide.”

    Mrs Ruby broke her hip. She has been in bed for two weeks. They have done all they can. She is dying, slowly. She is dying like many do. She wakes up sometimes and tells us about the new birth. They call it her preaching, and it offends many, like that Stone of stumbling she was built into.

   “Why have you come?” she asks. And the answer is love. Her eyes light up when you say it, and not until you do. And then she points that lovely narrow finger up to the ugly drop ceiling and says, “This is how we know what love is… Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” Maybe you don’t like it and don’t want to hear it, but Mrs. Ruby doesn’t care. She is way past caring. But you will never get over her, nor will I.

   Nor will I. She is standing on the shore. She is clean from her shower. She has tasted the goodness of the earth. She is happy like always. She is laughing her laugh. She is telling us goodbye. For just a moment, her eyes opened yesterday on Mrs. Georgia. “I’m okay,” she said. Just two words laid down beside grief and pain and death. Two words from a dry mouth, sent to comfort her friend.   

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 “We have traveled this day to the bounding sea, O Lord, to the far edge of the habitable land, as to the utter end of our own measure and ability and strength…”

 Douglas McKelvey, from Every Moment Holy

Our Journey Home

 

    On this day, four years ago, I sent an email to a fellow student in an online writing class. Her name was Sarah, and she was born on August 24th, the same day as me. The class itself was somewhat of a fluke, as the teacher ran over his laptop and just sort of forgot about the whole thing, despite the considerable fee. We were both very baby writers anyway, and I was inclined to look upon this as a discouraging sign from the heavens, but she laughed it off and in an effort to salvage the experience asked: “Would you like to exchange writing prompts once a week?”

    And so we got to know each other slowly, and yet so well that it’s hard to believe four years can accomplish so much, and from so great a distance. Sarah lives in England, the land of fairytales, in a cottage in a cathedral city. True story. She comes to see me, and I have longed, especially in uncomfortable times, to run off to her, like the heroines in the Austen novels who escape to their friends by the sea or Bath, and yet the story always follows them, you know, and things get better. So would the story follow me and things get better in the city of the water meadows, where five rivers converge, and swans gather on the banks, where the evening light still rests on King Alfred’s White Horse and casts long shadows at Stonehenge, where a gentle rain hits the windowpane of the room where Sarah sits and writes to me.

    She is thinking very carefully, and loving very deeply. She is perhaps unhappy, because of these things. I have leaned very heavily on her, even from such a distance. Someone told me the other day that a single person has no household to observe as a testimony of their character. They don’t know Sarah, or this mystery of the kingdom yet, how God takes a barren woman and makes her the mother of children, how He raises the valleys and is near to the brokenhearted. But I do, and it is grace. She has kept me well. She applies the promises of God to me, and in this way especially, she loves me often more than herself.

    She is the one who introduced me to Elizabeth Goudge’s The Dean’s Watch, and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, novels that changed me. It was Sarah who sent me The Good God, by Michael Reeves, when I wasn’t sure He was and Robert Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb, when I was hungry for a feast. And it was she, the blessed girl, who gave me the poetry of Malcolm Guite. His words have been mile markers for us along the way, in pain,

These bleak and freezing seasons may mean grace

When they are memory. In time to come

When we speak truth, then they will have their place,

Telling the story of our journey home,

and comfort,

Some people say that life is just a given thing

but you and I both know by whom its lent

and that it’s right here in the dirt

where we’ve both been loved and hurt

that Love Himself has come to pitch His tent

    All this has kept us, with simple words, mindful of the beauty just beyond our reach, but not forever. Sarah came to see me a month ago today. She bravely slept in the back of my 4Runner while I drove the interstate for six hours to Franklin, Tennessee, where we sat in a crowded auditorium, and shivered together with a glimpse of the joy we will have in fullness one day soon, in these words by Andrew Peterson:

Does Jesus our Messiah hold forever those he loves? He does.

Does our God intend to dwell again with us? He does.

    I plan to walk with Sarah through the rest of our lives, and I know there will be many marked days, joyful and sad, but I’m not sure any moment in this vale will surpass the sweetness of singing with her and beside her that night. Except if it was the moment, in hectic Atlanta traffic, when I looked at her in the rearview mirror, and she winked.

    I know that our friendship is not unique. It is as ordinary as that red wheelbarrow. You know, the one that so much depends on. There are many thousands of them in this old world, many countless eyes searching through open windows, calculating the time of day across the world, wondering what a friend is doing at that moment, wishing they were there doing it too. “The words are purposes. The words are maps,” as the poet says. The words between us, since that first email four years ago, were purposed, beyond our knowing of it, to reach each other’s hearts….  and the map? The map is of our journey home.

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He Swallows the Ground

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   When I take him out of the stall and brush him, there is a trembling in his flanks. He is just a common quarter horse, a prey animal, I explain to the kids. Don’t be afraid, and yet I am still afraid, even after all these years with many horses, even after falling and getting up again.

    I lead him to the ring.  Round and round I make him go, and he obeys. He knows I don’t want to go in circles either. Make them respect you, get some of their energy out, they say. So I lunge dutifully, ignorant of his feelings toward me, but with the deepest respect for him and sure that I could never, not with anything I’ve got, reduce his energy.

   He is an oldish horse now, retired from the barrel-race ring at age three. The first glance I had of him was his massive brown rump backing out of a horse trailer in our front yard when I was twelve. Whoa, I said, and I’ve been telling him that ever since.

   We are ready to go now, and I shiver all over. He feels it, and shivers too. There is a new view of the world up here, and a new set of muscles and sinew alive to it. There is a huge amount of work that goes into sitting a horse.  If you don’t feel it at the moment, you will feel it worse, sure enough, the next day.

    I keep him reigned in. The road is difficult, and whatever his strengths, I still think better than him, anyway. I hold him sharp, reigns gathered, head collected. He submits, and I marvel anew, every time. It is a willing submission, it must be. And mine is a willing lead. I am in his mouth, as they say, and it’s true, because this is a hard world. I’m never more perceptive than in those moments, when I can hear a twig crack like a bird dog, making the calls for the both of us. It makes me glad to be a woman.

   Then we come into the clear, the Big Country, a piece of National Forest so far back the hunters can’t find it. “No country for old men,” I say and he snorts. I hold him back just for a second, then release with a “Get up!”  I don’t know whose idea he thinks it was, but I knew I had no choice. I knew it the moment I took him from the stall. Hold him back? There just ain’t no way, not on God’s green earth.

    There are few things in creation more beautiful than a horse given his head. It is not a wild strength, but a bound one, set loose, it’s the freedom within law, the exuberant life of discipline. It is also terrifying. A prey animal? Nothing seems further from the truth. He runs toward the battle. Would the call to retreat sound, I’d have to jump off and run, for he’d have none of it. He considers not the obstacles before him— holes and felled trees, creeks and gullies. Just hold on. Sometimes I must close my eyes, all the while smiling so big, it hurts.

    He slows down at last, not because he is tired, but because he is satisfied. We are in a rich field and he wants to eat. I slip down and remove his bridle. “Wingman,” I say, rubbing his neck and for a moment I feel like a child beside her pet dragon. “Good boy.”

   Then I sit on a stump close by, as if to meditate, and wait for my ankles to stop trembling.

 

The Pilgrim Soul

    It can be very hard when someone you love is losing their memory, not to lose yours too. It’s easy to only see who they are in the moment, and not who they are really, which includes who they have been and who they will be.

    My Nanny is, has always been and will always be, one of my best friends.

    In my earliest memories, I remember being sung to by my parents, separately, in different songs. I remember being able to go down the loft stairs without touching the ground. But mostly, I remember Nanny.

     I remember going to sleep at my big country house and waking up in her little city one, waking up, beside her. I remember pulling her ears while she rocked and sang to me. She sang Hush Little Baby and All the Pretty Little Horses— that was my favorite: blacks and bays, dapples and grays. I remember a jewelry box. She was showing my sister the ballerina that spun on the surface of the lake inside, but I saw it too. I remember, later, her food. Oh the glorious food, heaps of it, all the day. I remember the coffee we would drink in bed. She showed me how to pour into my saucer to cool it down. I bet it spilt all over the sheets, but I don’t remember that. I remember riding in the back of her car, little and tan, like herself, and hearing her pray, “Lord, keep this precious cargo safe.” I remember the moment I realized, all goosebumped, that she was talking about me, about me to an invisible God.

    It was Nanny, I think, who gave me the name Sarie. It was Nanny who dressed me up and brushed my hair, one hundred strokes every morning, even when I looked like Alf. It was Nanny who could tell me tales of Indian Territory, the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, of an Okie girl who left home, suddenly, for California, married a kind, but unknown soldier and lived an average, but remarkable existence of fidelity to everything she was called to.

    It was Nanny and it continued to be Nanny for a very long time.

    Her mind is fragile now. The fault line gave way when that unknown soldier died. “I know people think I’m a hard person,” she said the other day. It’s not the forgetting that’s made her so, but the remembering that she has forgotten. It’s the fear of helplessness. But I remember who loved me when I was helpless. When I needed arms and songs and food and stories and time, all the time. I remember who remembered me.

     I remember Nanny.

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In Ruins

God saw the people of Israel— and God knew.   Exodus 2:25

      I remember, while walking through the woods as a little girl, Mama used to say, “I wonder what our place will look like in a hundred, two hundred, years?”

    She taught me to know a home site, to recognize a land loved. The chimney pile may be dispersed and the well filled in, or they might’ve made home without a chimney or a well, but the plants can tell you, and the ground can tell you. Then once you’ve seen enough of them, you can feel it. You find yourself looking around for a witness. Does this sound ridiculous? But if the earth can be redeemed, why can’t it also keep meaning, and memory? How is that too much? The wonders we are sure of, that we’ve grown used to, imply a Maker of wonders, not a wardrobe of them, unless that wardrobe opens to a whole world.

    So I knew what Mama was getting at, and it made me angry, and it still does.

    I loved the broken indian pottery, the homemade bricks, the depressions in the ground, the white oaks and iris bulbs of the dead. I loved finding initials in hearts on trees, past making out. I loved loving land that was loved before I was thought of. But I loved myself too. I loved my entrance into the story, and I hoped it would change things. I loved, more than anything, and without knowing it, permanence. My six year old heart wanted to live forever. Twenty years later, it still does. My six year old heart knew this couldn’t be, so the next best thing is to have children who have children who have children who are forever faithful, right?

    “We’ll be here,” I told Mama, foot stomping. “We’ll always be here!”

     Despite growing up and getting used to disappointment, I still, in all my plans, pursue continuity. Even in writing, this is the goad: an unwillingness to let things go. While the pines are cleared on the hills to make pasture, I’ve dropped into the bottom field to plant black walnut trees, a crop I won’t live to harvest. This may be vision, but it is still my vision, and limited, at best.

      The last few months I have served outside the only abortion mill in the region, praying, pleading, present, there, where little people are dismembered. The city has never been the place for me, but now, being cursed, spit at and reviled, I hate it. “Make it, them, real to us,” my friend prays, and when the Lord answers her, I want, with all of me, to go home. There is meaning here I do not want to know or keep. There is hope only that the memory of this place will be wiped off the earth. There my Maker has shown me that I’m a stranger in a strange land. There I’m a little girl standing on broken concrete, closing her eyes for a minute, trying to remember what the valley looks like in the spring, water rushing round the fallen logs and black stones, the smell of sassafras among the ferns, the vanishing white flag of the doe come to drink, this beautiful place of mine, just twenty miles northeast from the hell surrounded by churches full of people who are happier than they should be, considering.

     The seed promise is a consistent theme throughout all of Scripture, only increasing in urgency as we turn the pages to the Gospels, and gloriously fulfilled in the coming of Christ. But fulfilled doesn’t mean done with, but made full and here with us, as He is. What hope is there for a nation that legalizes the mass murder of innocents? What hope is there for a generation of women who are merciless to their own babies? For men who despise their own seed? What has grace done for us if the abuses and wrongs we have suffered have not served to make us more gentle and just, but apathetic abusers ourselves? The ground cries out—my own beloved ground and yours, wherever that may be—and we deserve the curse of Cain, indeed, we have received it, a heritage of violence, a fugitive fate, and if we are only a slight depression in the wilderness one day, it’s more than we deserve, for it’s more than we’ve given to the least of these, our people.

     What will our place look like in a hundred, two hundred years? I don’t know anymore, Mama. With the time, I will plead for the defenseless, with the sad souls who think killing the preborn could ever make anything better. Then I will come home and plant trees.

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These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country.   Hebrews 11: 13-14

Listen Up

     Since January, I’ve spent Mondays with Mrs. Alice.

     “I wish you could have seen me when I was young!” she says.  But on Mondays she feels young again.

    I’ve learned so much about her, and about myself, living a day with her, in her kitchen and closets, driving her car, pruning her roses and ironing her pillowcases. She loves to talk and I love to listen. With her old mountain accent, every word is wise. I dodge behind a wall sometimes and jot things down in a notebook thin enough to fit in my back pocket. When I get home it seldom looks as profound as it sounded when she said it. She reminds me of someone I loved very much, what seems like a long time ago now. She doesn’t ask a great deal about me. It’s not that she doesn’t want to know, but that she doesn’t need to. In a younger person, this might seem rude and careless, but in Mrs. Alice, it’s honest perception. She can read me, as they say, like a book. This was humbling at first, but I do feel quite loved by her. It comes to me now that there are few things better in this life than a well loved book.

    We were sitting at the kitchen table, creaming corn to put up in the freezer. We had it all over the rug and in our hair. She was quiet for a time.

    “What’s the hardest thing that ever happened to you?” I asked, thinking I knew what she’d say. I’d heard her story many times. First I heard the one all people have prepared, fairly tidy and sensible: birth, marriage, babies, places, ailments. Then after she trusted me with her dinner party arrangements and delicate laundry, after she held my arthritic hands in her own, after I burned a hole in her drapes and adopted her decrepit dog, she told me more. Kikelomo, they called her in Nigeria, “whom we love to pet”. The Yoruba people took her to themselves, taught her their recipes, told her their stories, delivered her babies and named them, precious names. She told me about her work as a surgeon’s assistant, and her life as a wife and as a mother. She told me tales of the grandchildren in the portraits on the walls. She told me which ones were in trouble and which one was eligible. She told me about the Sunday School lesson and what she thought about the evening news.

    So I thought I knew the answer. She’d say God had been good, so good, to her and she would tell me about her mother’s death and her grief in leaving Africa.

   “God has been good to me, so good. Sarah…. there was a time, worse than any other. It’s a right long story.”

    Then Mrs. Alice went and told me a new thing.

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Talitha Cumi

     My brother-in-law walked across the way at daybreak to dig a hole in the graveyard, the first hole, under an old white oak, for the youngest and newest of the membership. My sister’s labor pains were unlike those before. “Much worse,” she said. How could it be, to deliver a body just the size of a walnut, a person, just ten weeks old?  A person, nevertheless, and dead, no longer pulsing hope, the doctor told them days ago, though my sister knew. We will go to the child, but she will not come to us.

     My sister and I spent yesterday at home, waiting, talking it through. What will it be like to meet the unborn in heaven? We imagine the stories of the saints, but what of these? “I was the Image of God in the place of the incarnation,” the baby would say. “My life was a vapor. I was broken. Jesus came and made all things new.”  What more could I say, though full of days?  What, but this, do the angels long to see?

    We talked of patience, thinking we bore it, little knowing what was to come. We searched for some good word, and read of all the world’s waiting ones, the lonely, the barren, the empty, the poor, the waiting of the very world itself. We cried David’s “how long?” and our Lord’s “why?” We rejoiced in the broadening of our sensitivity, the softening of our hearts. The word “miscarriage” had come to us oblivious, but no more. We prayed, needs crowding in, with increased perception of the world’s pain, yours and mine and our neighbors.

     Then, at last, the baby came, slowly, in agonizing hours of not knowing. Between contractions, in the blood, we would ask: Was that the baby?  Despair came to my sister, in words she never spoke in bringing forth life. I can’t do this. Yes you can. What do I do? Wait. When will it end? Soon. I want it to be over. I know. I wanted to say, as I had before, Your labor is not in vain. The baby will be here soon, but I couldn’t. The good news had died.

     Deliverance came as it does, every time— in a moment. The placenta filled my hands, an oval, tightly woven. Father and mother hovered over. Would you open it for us?  Suspended inside was the baby, little eyes and hands, bellybutton, feet, the image of God in the place of the incarnation. I have seen two healthy births, baby girls come sliding into home. I have held a hand as it passed from life unto death unto life again, as an old man gave up his soul. This unborn baby was like these things in splendor, and we were honored and we were grateful.

     So we walked over to meet him, father and gravedigger, across the way, carrying the little body wrapped in white linen. We ascended the hill, and gathered together.

     The doctor called them into his office after the ultrasound. “Many people look for meaning after a thing like this,” he said.

     My sister laid her baby in the tomb. Her husband took her hand and sang, “Sing the wondrous love of Jesus, Sing His mercy and His grace; In the mansions bright and blessed. He’ll prepare for us a place.…”  She opened her Bible and read,

 Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.”

      It was not that they were looking for meaning, this man and woman on the hilltop in the early morning. They were too tired for that. But it rose like the sun among us, shadowed and slow, revealing a day we did not wish to see. In waiting, in sleepless nights, in labor, in fears, in blood, in tears, in a grave, in the gospel of the brokenhearted, in the life of the world to come, in a moment, our labor is not in vain and behold, I tell a mystery:  the baby will be here soon. The Good News died, and lives again, is lost and now is found. Talitha cumi, little girl, I say to you, arise.

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On Center

     First I prepare the wheel. There is a splash guard that snaps around the head, but it’s a trick to get it in right and I struggle with it.

    “Need help?” the old man used to ask.

    “No sir,” I’d say.  “This is just what I do.”

    Finally it slides into place and I gather my things: the bowl of water, a towel, the sponge, a little piece of sheepskin, and I’m ready.  No, not yet. How could I forget the clay? I cut a small lump, just what I need for a cup. I wedge it, kneading, kneading, working out all the air, moving my fingers over every part, getting to know it well.

    Now I am ready for the wheel, this mysterious, coveted position, which is really nothing but a lot of hard work and humbling. I slam the clay down in the middle of the head, but a respectful slam. I reach down the side of the wheel body, flip on the power switch, adjust the pedal speed, wet my hands and begin this, the hardest part, but only because I haven’t moved on to the other hardest parts.

    Centering, the potter’s bane. I align my arm to my body in just the way I have been taught. This is not about brute strength, they say. So why am I am always sore the next day? Pressing, pressing, pressing. The clay must be perfectly, evenly dispersed as it spins.  If there is just a little more on one side, or on one side of a side, it will wobble. It will be uneven in thickness and rise uneven in height. Finally I run my finger over it whirling, from top to bottom, and the finger is still. The earth lies patient. We are ready. But steady now.

    “Well I can tell you what you’re doing wrong,” the old man said early on. “You’re going too fast. You’re approaching the clay violently.”

    I tried again and again. I scraped more than I kept. I cut my work to see the faults. At any point the vessel can knock off center, so I learned to move in and release gently. Today, I centered well. I opened the cup and laid the bottom, but was having trouble raising the wall.

     “Well I can tell you what you’re doing wrong,” the old man said. “You’re letting the clay push you around.”

 

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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.”