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.)

A Very Great Adventure

“So let’s wash out all the wish business.  It never helped anyone to solve any problem yet.”   -C.S. Lewis, in a letter to Sheldon Vanauken

We smiled as Laura skipped rocks, sending them gently across the smooth surface of the water. That’s what I should have done with my cares.  I could have tossed them away from me, to watch them bounce, or comically land kerplunk.

We were walking along the lakeside, managing the affairs of the world, Laura, Annie, Rachel and I, as only young women can do, not concerned with the movement of armies or affairs of state, but with pursuits of even more magnitude— what would happen to us, to our friends, to those we loved.  We had it all nearly sorted out, until it occurred to us, watching the white billows of the sailboats fill and spill in the distance, that we had as little control over the future as we did over the west-northwest wind, whipping around us.

I shivered and said, “I wish I could be old for just a few minutes, to look back on what happened, to know a few things ahead of time.”

“No,” Rachel said decidedly.  “Not me.”

I looked at Annie, like Emma looking to Mrs. Weston, like a classic little sister. She said nothing, and her face was kindly, but I knew it was badly spoken.  So often, in those little hasty side comments, I learn my weakness.  Faithless?  Who, me?

Rachel was right.  I can imagine many good reasons now why a glimpse into the future would be a bad idea.  (Just read Macbeth, right?!) But more than this, I know God wants– delights in– whole trust, happy trust.   Besides, as a wise man once said: you have to let the Storyteller tell the story in the way He wants to tell it.  This life is not about collecting data, it’s about light coming to darkness in a sequence of events, in the very point of need.  When Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome walked to the tomb early Easter morning, they, too, were full of cares and questions.  Who will roll away the stone for us, so that we might care for the horribly dead body of our friend?  They arrive to find an angel, who has not only rolled back the stone, but shaken the earth around it, and the Beloved Body has walked away, risen indeed.  Had the women known exactly what was going to happen, they would not have fretted over the stone’s removal, and yet the astounding goodness of the good-news and humorous irony of our earthiness and frailty in the face of Almighty God would not have been seen.  The story would not have been as good.  And people who ask stupid questions would not know what good company they are in!

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I don’t want to be a young woman wishing she were an old woman already.  I don’t want to be scared of living.  But it is comforting to remember that in most good stories the characters come to a point of feeling that way, frightened to go on, doubtful the end could be good.

“I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?” Sam asked in The Two Towers.  “I wonder,'” said Frodo.  “But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.”

I came across the Lewis quote at the top the other day, and it sent me into a manic spree to find these of his below.  I’m working on letting the waves come, on losing sight of the shore, on letting the Storyteller tell His own story, for goodness sake, always remembering, in both joy and sorrow, that the best is yet to come.

And how could we endure to live and let time pass if we were always crying for one day or one year to come back- if we did not know that every day in a life fills the whole life with expectation and memory and that these are that day?      – from Out of the Silent Planet

This is a very great adventure, and no danger seems to me so great as that of knowing… I left a mystery behind me through fear.           –  from the Voyage on the Dawn Treader

To reject the wave… to say to Him, ‘Not thus, but thus’— to put in our own power what times should roll towards us… That would have been cold love and feeble trust. And out of it how could we ever have climbed back into love and trust again?   – from Perelandra

He raised his head and roared, ‘Now it is time!”…. And as he spoke he no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them.  And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after.  But for them it was only the beginning of the real story.  All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.     – from The Last Battle

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Good Grief, Charlie Brown

Come now, my friend, how can you say, like a bird up to his mountain I should fly away? All hope is gone. This is the end. Now retreat’s the only course that you would recommend. My friend, your counsel of defeat is like a coal. It burns my soul. (Psalm 11, My Soul Among Lions)

In the evenings, Pop would talk. The darkness was heavy; anxiety would find him. He could hardly move those last few weeks.  Can you imagine the madness, especially for a strong active man, of sudden immobility in the dark?
So he would talk, a little wildly sometimes, and I was there each night beside him.  Toward the end the fear was palpable, like an unwelcome guest in the room.  The old, like the young, are simpler. The nightmares were horrible but understandable.  He had seen war.  He was in war again. He was wounded in a trench, they had left him here to die.
When he heard my voice beside him, I would enter into his narrative.  I was a fellow soldier, his mother, his wife, myself, just a young girl… it changed and it didn’t matter.  I was with him.
Will they come for us?  He asked.    Yes.
Will you stay with me?
Yes. And Jesus is with us.
Yes, he said.

Well, everyone who knows me knows how I have missed this old man.  All the memories from those last months, every single dear word and the supervision of slow death…. I am still sorting it all out.  He was a precious friend, residing for twenty-four years in the interlining of the innermost circle of my heart.  He went to Jesus and it was good.   Even still it is true that I have mourned him every day and despised the sin of the world that brought separation with the fire of a thousand suns, and this grief blinds me sometimes to the sweeter truth.  This world is too heavy for me.  My brow is furrowed and my little lips recede into my face.

Then, mercifully so:
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.   (Tolkien, The Return of the King)

I wish I could stop neatly here, but honesty compels me to say:  before I get to the light and high beauty moment, I am always found in that forsaken land of Mordor.  I have come to realize (to my shame of course which doesn’t help the situation) that I am generally a melancholy soul.  I am a woeful combination of a bleeding-heart and crusade-spirit, making me a comical real-life version of Lucy from Peanuts, alternatively giving psychiatric advice and hitting people in the head with a football.

The problem with Fixers is that they need to be fixed.  If I speak a counsel of defeat to my own soul, how can I offer words of life to my friends?

I read in a Calvin commentary years ago – “In thinking of the future, it is best to prepare for the worst, to lay in for the long siege.”
This is solid wisdom that I need to hear, but I have found that on either side of truth there is a chasm of error and a handy-dandy catapult with free rides from one pit to the other.  Mine is an aimless, indulgent and immature generation.  As Zack Eswine said in the book, Spurgeon’s Sorrows:
“… when we find ourselves impatient with sadness, we reveal our preference for folly, our resistance to wisdom, and our disregard for depth and proportion.”   However if I am, in response, morose and defeatist concerning the problems that plague me most (that is, my own) I have surely missed the boat of God’s good truth.

My friends and family have been so kind to let me grieve.  No one has rushed me, but I know myself that it is time to look up.  I will still miss Pop everyday; I told him I would (and he was pleased to hear it!) and he told me in return things I will cherish all my days.  And now?

Now I preach to my soul.  Now I cultivate joy.  Now I read Scripture like a traveler reads his map.  Now I strive to think, when the truth is dark and depressing:  My friend, but you forget the Lord is on His throne, and we’re His own.

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Sunny Days

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Four generations of feet right here.

I grew up in the public school system, which strikes me now as a rather twisted experiment with the human psyche.  I had a teacher that often referred to our ignorance of and unfitness for “the real world”.  We thought she was crazy, but she was right.

Since my last day in school, not a single bell has ushered me from one room to the next.  I haven’t raised my hand to ask a question, or been with 60 people my own age.  And I haven’t- not once- even seen a chicken ring, much less eaten one.

Kids are resilient and even after a decade in this pseudo-reality, we can move on and engage in normal human activity, but every now and then something jogs my memory and I am there again.

One such moment comes every year in May.  Before I even open my eyes in the morning, I can feel it.  I am free.  Set loose.  It is the morning of the year of jubilee. Summertime!

Growing up, Summer was the time of real living.  It was my favorite season.  In the same way I’d hurl my backpack on a Friday afternoon, that bright May morning for over a decade I hurled my cares.  Just chucked them in exchange for

My sister (mine, my very own)
Catching fireflies
Running through the sheets on the clothesline
Crushing berries to paint myself
Creek sliding, lake swimming, night fishing
Boiled peanuts, Sweetened condensed milk, tomatoes
No tests, no pressures, no need to gag on my toothbrush at the unrighteousness hour of 6 AM

Quickly I remember that I have been grown and free for years, with 365 days a year available to smear crushed berries on myself if I wished, but with my first sip of coffee I smile to think of all the kids waking up to that good feeling.

I hope someone buys them a big bag of boiled peanuts and fireflies visit them soon.

the Plain Old Truth

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Sweet is the melody, so hard to come by- It’s so hard to make every note bend just right, you lay down the hours and leave not one trace but a tune for the dancing is there in its place    ~ Iris Dement

To die slowly, or to care for someone who is dying slowly, is exacting business. You think “this is all I have” and then more is required, but you are still there and mostly alright, so you were wrong, but that doesn’t keep you from thinking it again the next day or five minutes.

The human spirit is a profound mystery.   In the medical field it is an unescapable mystery. There are no atheists in the foxholes, they say.  No, nor on particular floors of the hospital either.  Maybe in surgery or labor and delivery we can be duped into thinking we’ve got this.   But in the rooms where they remove the monitors because the end of their researching has come, the elephant in the room is the soul.

Going through this the last few months, I’ve grown older and learned a great deal, all of it confirming “there’s really nothing new to say, but the old old story bears repeating and the plain old truth grows dearer every day” as Rich Mullins wrote.

Beside a death bed and through weeks of exhaustion, frustration and sorrow, we learn who we are when we can’t help it. Our wills fail so easily and the curtain of our practiced discipline parts to reveal the long-formed hidden character.

I have never been more deeply and humbly grateful to be a Christian.  Salvation as a undeserved gift seems more than ever true.  Grief and turmoil hit us all like a semi, but for those in Christ there is simply Someone There to sustain you, restrain you, nourish you, put you to sleep, make the sun rise, surprise you with joy.

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I’ve also never been more grateful to be a homemaker.  Pain is clarifying and I have discovered at the end of the day, at the end of a life, the ones who took care of you, with your real physical, personal needs, are the ones with genuine worth. The ones who have loved you in your daily mundane cares, mess and hunger are those you love, and there is no greater calling on this earth than to love and be loved.

Homemaking is not just for the married.  It is for any woman who wants to meet the pressing needs, which are unpaid, untitled and culturally inglorious, but fulfilling and meaningful, especially when pursued faithfully and with courage.

Dying people need mothers.

Homemaking, I’ve discovered, is about pots and pans, shovels and brooms, laundry hampers and grocery lists.   It’s also about a welcoming hospitable heart.

It takes fortitude to open the door to needy people and humility to recognize your need and step inside the door graciously yourself.

We were each other’s guest and each other’s welcomer, wrote Wendall Berry on marriage, and it seems to me the bottom line of domestic tranquility and impossible to accomplish in marriage if you’re not accustomed to living this way already.

And lastly, I’m grateful for morning coffee and afternoon tea.  Having survived several days this week without either, I can testify that God’s greatest gifts are often, indeed, his commonest.

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Bright Sadness

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I was conflicted and torn-up on the way home that night. My whole world had changed and I couldn’t see beyond the brights and dims of the SUV.  My sister and constant companion had married and we’d all had a lovely day, rejoicing, feasting, speaking, smiling. But it is hard to be watched by so many while so full of emotion, so truly happy and yet so anxious for time to slow down, to just stop for a minute and let you think, all while the fancy boning of the pretty dress presses on your diaphragm.

I bet I said some pitiful stuff to my friend, Kelly, who was driving me home. It was just the two of us. She had come across the country for this day, and we hadn’t seen each other in many years, but she was still the same – wise beyond her years, calling me to wisdom beyond mine. Maybe I was crying and complaining, I can’t remember much, except this:

“Have you studied the names of God?” she asked, so obviously missing the point. “Do you remember El Roi?”
“The God Who Sees,” I said.

In this Kelly admonished me implicitly, to buck up, to grow up, not on my own strength but on His, because it really didn’t matter who I was.  And I think it a tender evidence of His grace that I cannot remember my own pathetic ramblings that night, but rather His Name, which truly “calms our fears and bids our sorrows cease” as the hymn-writer said.

Time seemed to bolt on that wedding day, like a horse from the barn after a long storm, but since then it has kept close and moved slowly. Maybe because I am more zealous to hold it by the reins.

Liturgy comforts me. I don’t press hard for order in my daily life, but I do love order. Order outside myself, order I don’t have to control. Order above me, not below me. Order indifferent to the chaos of humanity. Order sans Sarah.

(And do you know, the world still twirls wonderfully?)

A dear friend sent me this poem recently by Arthur Hugh Clough:

It fortifies my soul to know
That, though I perish, Truth is so:
That, howsoever I stray and range,
Wherever I do, Thou dost by change.
I steadier step when I recall
That, if I slip, Thou dost not fall.

I love the liturgy of the seasons. The springtime and harvest, blessedly repetitive, rhythmic, reliable.

I love the great light who rules the day and the lesser lights who rule the night. I respond to their rule. There is peace in that, you know.

I’ve come to love the liturgy of the church calendar, though I’m still a novice at it.  It’s not the high-churchism I love; not the robes or outward marks or even the feasts and fasts.

It’s the low-churchism. It’s the similarity of the pattern to the soil.  In the cold nights, short days, naked branches, dying seeds, the very earth cries out: “Surely, surely, he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows!”

In the swollen pregnant bellies of the livestock, the earth waits. In the haunting song of the searching geese, the earth yearns.

Lent is a time for Bright Sadness, they say, which is something more fierce than melancholy, I’m thinking.

When David cried those chilling words, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalam! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”, He only echoed God’s anguish. The God Who Sees knows our sorrows and they grieve him. They are his own. He knows our sins and they grieve Him too. These also He took on Himself.

He is passionate, He weeps.  He is masculine, He moves – for there came a Warrior Ransom, a Perfect Son of David who died in the place of our Absalom-wicked hearts.

Yes, His Joy is as fierce as His Sorrow. But we mustn’t rush it.

Don’t be like those roosters who wake me up at 3:00 AM, please. Wait for it.

The sap rises in the grapevines, the new leaves hunker down in the final frost and in the cold night sky there shines Betelguese, whose name means The Branch Coming and Rigel below, meaning The Foot That Crusheth, and they sing again the battle story,

of that night when the The God Who Sees said,  “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death, remain here and watch with me.”

Painful Pruning

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I’ve been pruning roses.

A seminary student came to the farm once and asked about our muscadine crop. There had been little rain that year and a pitiful harvest, but I had read that the sweetest grapes grow in drought years, and told him so.
“That’ll preach,” he said.

I often think of that in the garden, where just about everything will preach if you will listen.

It’s hard to prune.  A neighbor stopped by and watched me, saying, “I’ve got a few roses, but I don’t think I can do that to them!”  It does feel cruel to take off so much, two-thirds of the strong green shoots, already bushing out at the top.  I must conscientiously remember the old lady in the rose gardening documentary.  I remember watching my grandfather and sister do this every February.   I remember the radical “prunings” in my life and in the lives of others, prunings that felt much more like butcherings at the time.   In remembering, I know it will be okay.

Remembering is what gardeners do in the winter; it’s as essential as fertilizer and as nourishing as rain. Without it, no seeds would be planted, no beds mulched over and no roses pruned.

With the bright red Felco pruners, newly sharpened and cleaned, the process begins. First, you look her over. Queen of the Violets, she is called and in her sprawly, confident posture, I remember the thousands of full, heavily scented flowers and the Green Lynx Spider that makes a home in her every summer.  I see the trellis we had to build in the ground behind to support her.  She is the only purple rose, and she shoots out in all directions, as if she knows her own importance, and strives to make herself seen above the others.  I know this rose, but as I squat to see the dead stock, as I look for disease and fungus, as I consider where she must be cut, she becomes fully known.

In pruning out the dead, it must be remembered that the presence of the barren, dry stock is not a failure.  Roses are regenerating things.  They are always dying, always being reborn.  Do not be deceived by the deadness. “It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present to us: it is the very sign of his presence,” was part of a Lewis quote that a knowing friend recently sent me, sensing the discouragement with my own dirt and deadness.  And so with the rose.  The dead is only seen when the Gardener is standing there, present, and eager to help.

I look for a scar, concentrating on the science of the thing, for this part preaches a bit too loudly for comfort and squirming is not helpful in making a clean cut.  A scar is where the job must be done, for there is something in that old hurt that can come alive.  With the direction of the cut and the position of the scar, I train the bush to open up, to spread out to the world, not into herself, to form a vessel to receive the sun and rain, and in return to give her gifts to others.

Half an hour later, stepping back to see, I’m glad my neighbor did not stay, for, although I am satisfied, it is a humble sight.  I haul the branches to the goats, who love the dark new leaves and the occasional rose-hip.  Getting scratched in the process, I smile at the memory of the girl who stepped out of the mini-van in her blue Converse shoes and basketball shorts.
“Umm, why do you have so many thorn bushes?” she asked.

Walking back to the now much smaller, lowlier rose, I do the final thing.  It’s silly, I know, but the poetic nature of the painful work I did compels me.  Gardening lends itself to fools. “You are Queen of the Violets! ” I say.

If a rose could disbelieve, she does.  Yet it is so.  Someday soon she will know, even as she is fully known.  I hope my neighbor and the girl with the Converses come and see.

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Take it Slow

 

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Staring at my schedule book on December 1st, I wrote: Take it Slow in big script at the top, right above the bullet hole straight through every Monday (this accident happened early in the year and proved prophetic: Your schedule is shot.)

I want to take these advent days gently. I want to feel them all, as Mary felt her belly swell and the life kick, and I want to ponder it all in my heart, just as she did.

But there are fifty meat chickens to be processed and put in the freezer, beeswax candles to dip, sugar cane to be pressed and boiled down, two leaks in the house and one in the barn roof, stalls to be cleaned, goats to milk, three meals a day with expected (and unexpected) guests, muddy tracks across the floor, cows escaping, firewood to haul, fireplaces to clean, all sorts of Christmas to-dos (and oh, by the way, did you see the “Rush! Live root stock, plant immediately!” package at the door?).

So how am I supposed to take it slow, Lord?

I will provide the grace.

He will provide the grace, like he did for Mary, every jarring bump along the way to the ill-timed census.

It is not about my circumstances. I know too well how unclean stables can be. I have held a woman gripped in birth pains. I can only imagine what having a death warrant from a king would be like.

No, it is about a heart-tender with the capacity to treasure and ponder all things sent.

Sometimes it’s fifty dead chickens on a cold rainy day and I’m in the gutting section and my nose is dripping. Sometimes it’s watching your grandmother unwrap every ornament slowly and gently and talk about each one. Sometimes it’s climbing on the roof to look at the leak, trying hard not to let it show that something essential in your back just stretched beyond its ability. Sometimes it’s sitting at a beloved concert, all beautiful and true, and realizing that the goosebumps aren’t going away and your whole body has gone numb in the glory of the story, the true tall tale as old as time and yet new every year, every morning.

Things will not be ideal. Life and work and needs will go on in December like always. Taking it slow is not the same as taking it easy.

This proper stillness comes in the inner sanctum. It ought to be there in the walled garden, where the foxes can’t enter to ravage, nor strangers disturb, that shelters from the wind.

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When I look outside it seems like creation is waiting at ease on death, but the wonder of Christianity is in the cry of the baby, unmistakable and poignant in the dark night on the streets of David’s town. When Mary received the troubling visit and her schedule was undone with the angelic message, despite the myriad distractions and daily chores that surely continued, she sang. What’s more, she made the song she sang, from the still quiet place of her poet’s heart.

She took it slow.

And today, by the grace of her Baby Boy, so will I.

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