Sunday, December 19, 2010

I'll Be Home for Christmas

What' s home? We're approaching the week of Christmas, and the highways are full, the airports are overflowing and the schools have let out. The line at Barnes and Noble spread all through the calendars, past the Christmas cards and buy 2, get 1 free games for kids. The checkers called for reinforcements; they were by no means peevish with us customers, but they were decidedly peckish toward any co workers they thought in the wrong place at the wrong time. I assume they were making good money this Sunday morning before Christmas, but if you asked them, I'd also bet they had a list a mile long of tasks to be done at "home".

I just got back from a couple of days in Jefferson City with Blake, followed by an overnight in Springfield. The lights came on in this old house and the little Hallmark ornament chimed in with 'Jingle Bell Rock' when I plugged in the Christmas tree. We completed the familiar routine as Blake off loaded our baggage and I divided the dirty clothes from the clean ones. The house was chill and the hibiscus drooped on the stair landing, but these signs of neglect were easily solved with a tumbler of water and the whoosh of the gas log. Before long, the expectant feeling of our waiting house was supplanted with the grinding of the washer, the cascade of newspapers by the couch and the aroma of c0ffee brewing.

Sunday evening the front of the church was transformed into a friendly living room complete with welcoming hosts, guests decked out in red vests and Christmas sweaters, everyone ready and willing to break into song or read Scripture. The songs were familiar; the story second nature, but peace and comfort spread over the proceedings as the organ rolled, the voices rose and the piano led us through the old, sweet story. Reflect on the adjectives and draw them 'round like your favorite afghan; 'tis the sound and description of home.

Mark and Laura are safely back in St. Louis after our second annual Christmas visit from our Pernod Gardens family. We were jolly and boisterous around the kitchen island, seated in the dining room toasting family accomplishments and New Year's ambitions, but the roof didn't really raise until the kids, already excited by the prospect of opening packages, dived into the big peppermint striped box of goodies, tossing wrappings like the Momma Dog in pursuit of a rodent. Fernando the pinata presented a temporary challenge with three kids coughing and the outside temperature well below freezing, but Abbie solved the problem by jumping on his back. Before we knew it, the volume rose several more notches and little flakes of tissue paper floated down on us like a ticker tape parade. We donned reindeer ears, elf hats with jingle bells, and other even more holly jolly headbands with snowmen and Santas bobbing in agreement that this was a fabulous family party with all the appropriate trimmings. Ben tossed Aaron's new juggling balls; Matt blew up long skinny balloons for animals and head dresses; Kenzie helped LIzzie construct a long domino trail in the dining room while Laura demonstrated proper tiddly wink technic to Abbie. Gabe made mournful whistling sounds with a fascinating colored tube and we cheered on the Rockin' Sock'em robots wielded by Ryan and Matt. Through it all, we avoided stomping on Mr. Josh and he looked on and listened to the merriment. Who knows what went through his baby brain?

After the ball game the four of us walked back home through the chill. The Christmas lights always seem to take on a added clarity and brightness when you walk at night. I know it borders on trite to observe the great leveling effect of Christmas lights; all displays speak to hope and anticipation and even a type of generosity. After all, Christmas lights are rarely "hidden beneath a bushel" or limited to someone's walled and gated backyard. Modest or ostentatious, they are right out there in front for all the world to see.

Blow up Santa has appeared on the front porch in all his illuminated glory. Two years ago, I was craven and overly cute with my attempt to have him waving from the third floor porch. He sagged and wilted under the onslaught of winter's gales. But this year I gave in to the overwhelmingly obvious nature of a blow up Santa; I AM A GIANT INFLATABLE, he proclaims with his sheer existence, I SHALL NEVER BE SUBTLE. To pay homage to his ineffable nature, he waves 24-7, this final week of Advent from the porch, tethered to the lawn chairs in Blake's favorite corner. I like to think the Ghost of Christmas Past would approve.

Aaron and Lizzie look like the little kids "with visions of sugar plums" as they snooze on the floor, wrapped in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sleeping bag and the Mizzou Snuggie. Their cheeks are rosy and a peaceful snore emanates from time to time. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, a day of baking and wrapping, followed by an time of reflection and the night of ineffable mystery and wonder. I can never be thankful enough, appreciative enough, grateful enough for the blessings of this my temporal home. I can never fathom the love of a Father expressed in His Son. But I can weep with joy and amazement on Christmas Eve as every mother can and cast my arms and heart wide around my loved ones here at home.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Musings on Trisha Yearwood

So you cannot lift a spirit that has turned to lead
Or shine a light in shadow when the batteries are dead
Or fly like a bird over all the works of man
Or always think of the perfect words
But you do the best you can

Nothing seems as easy as it did when you were young
Myths may be invincible, but we are only strong
Strong like a memory, strong like a willow in the wind
Strong as you'll ever be, you will always need to bend

And if you feel the weight of the world
Put your mind at ease
Little Hercules

There are times when being a grown-up gets to be too much
And your sense of humor seems to vanish in the crush
Of the daily 9 to 9 that keeps your family alive
You're just putting in your time
Does anyone really go home at 5?

You've made a life where no one ever tells you what to do
Now the only tyrant that you're working for is you
It's never easy to keep all the promises you make
But no one's gonna get you fired
If you'd just give yourself a brake

And if you feel the weight of the world
Put your mind at ease
Little Hercules
'Cause there's so much on your shoulders
But you know it's a breeze
Little Hercules
Little Hercules

I know, this is rather a downer during the uplifting Christmas season, when we should, uniformly and at all times, rejoice in the miraculous and unfathomable Gift to us lowly humans. But its a lovely and winsome song, like a pat on the shoulder by a good friend or a heartfelt hug from a little child. Its a song for all the folks trying to make it into the house from the car with all the bags when the one with the gallon of milk breaks. Its the song for the moms with little kids sick at home, missing work with no vacation time, the song for dads with dead batteries, guttering pilot lights, plugged drain pipes, for grandmas and grandpas too far away to ease day to day worries.

How do you lift a spirit that has turned to lead? Or think of all the perfect words? Its hard to resurrect that sense of humor on your own but the temptation is strong to keep a stiff upper lip and prove you're a grown up. Its fine to run wailing if one is three or four and under, but no way to run a world.

The myth is that anything is ever easy, young or not. Its the state of man and the good things of our lives may be life long or fleeting, but never earned nor deserved. They are gifts and grace, pure and simple, and this realization may be what makes life easier and makes us adults. "Don't Dwell" was an admonition in our household, one administered by parents quite familiar with the tendency to pick up and gnaw at a worry in hopes of reducing it to a more manageable size. We want to fix things, and fix them NOW; I struggle with the temptation to stay up and do one more thing, to solve one more puzzle, to clean up one more mess, instead of setting that problem aside to deal with in the morrow in a more measured and grown up fashion.

Don't be Little Hercules. Don't bear the weight of the world on your shoulders. Its not your task, to do it on your own. You can't! Give somebody the warm feeling that comes from giving themselves; ask a favor and let someone lend a hand.

'Tis the season, not just for packages.

Friday, December 3, 2010

New Roads

We're here at the Lake, at Tantara, on the first weekend in December. For this family, there is nearly as much tradition connected to the Farm Bureau meeting as any other holiday season occurrence. Since 1982 or so, our family has taken this trip to the Lake to meet and greet first family, then later on, a multitude of friends and colleagues, to shop, to consult, to politic, to stay up too late, to swim, to play, to vote, to listen, then finally to pack up a carload again and make the drive home. The Lake is resplendent with lights this time of year; Tantara puts on a good show. When we first started coming down here, we stayed in the nicest and most spacious rooms we'd ever seen. The girls and I would meet up with my mother, who worked for Farm Bureau then, after she'd finished her official tasks, and browse the quaint shops, or walk the Lakeside, or buy caramels for my father. We were too cheap to eat any of the group meals, but Sunday morning my folks would buy us the fancy breakfast buffet at the Black Bear. We'd progress from there to ice cream sundaes and sausage and cheese courtesy of the Farm Bureau. Sunday evening was pizza; breakfasts were carry in, as we always did when we traveled.

The kids all grew up with Farm Bureau. From the time they could sit in a meeting, Greg Gaines would help entertain them as they sat and colored, as Lee and Ann did, or pushed tractors and airplanes, as Ben did. The girls thought they were pretty neat when they got big enough to know their way around and could go to the swimming pool, or down to the arcade room, by themselves. They were good babysitters and shuttled their brother up and down the escalator over and over. There wasn't a giant outlet mall way back when, so most of our entertainment happened right here at the resort. We could keep plenty busy if the weather was nice just walking the labyrinth of the grounds, but if it was raining (it was never cold to us northern denizens), we could play ping pong for free. It was a special treat when Laura and Mark came to spend a weekend; then we might bowl or even go ice skating.

But the center of attention was the meeting itself. Whether Blake was county president or a voting delegate or, good fortune of all, a member of the Resolutions (or Policy Development committee back in olden times!) sitting up front, the big packet of colored paper was center attention. Looking back, we hope no one remembers how, well, let's say, over enthusiastic, we could be about Farm Bureau policy. We were excited to be in the midst of folks who got down and dirty about ideas and politics, a situation we had been away from since college days. We might be bottom rung, but we were part and parcel even as we sat in the back or sides with our two little girls, and, later, little boy.

Now, some twenty some years later, Blake is moving from the back of the meeting hall up to the front. All of a sudden, it seems, I'm matching up dress socks in the drawer, instead of my normal theory on work socks (hey, if there are two socks and two feet, what more do you need?). We are trying to sync computers, calendars, cell phones, though I realize we'll still have the days in April and May when time reverts to its most primitive measurement, daylight and darkness, work and sleep. The man with the smashed black thumb is deciding which pictures he'd like to have with him in a new office. What part of home will be in Jefferson City? The black and white drawing of the little boy yawning on the Minneapolis Moline, plowing out rows of baby corn? The photo of Grandpa Hurst posed in front of the first sixteen row Kinze planter? The grandkids, of course, in a constant rotation of older versions, no doubt. But how about the picture of two other little girls, wistfully looking at their grandma's camera lens from the top of a tin roof as the setting sun softens the sky behind them? How about a yellowed newspaper clipping of Blake's first (and we obviously thought, last, since we framed it) article in the Wall Street Journal? All these carry a story, a life lesson, a reminder from the past to the future.

In that case, maybe I should get the little combo clock/picture frame from the office. Its a Farm Bureau hand me down from a year or two back, about the size of a hard cover book. The clock on one side counts time present, but the square picture opposite remembers time past. It is a square Instamatic shot dating from early summer 1977. That's the summer Blake and I were engaged but apart, him in Tarkio and me in Washington, D.C. I had the picture under glass thirty some years ago, to keep me company. There's a little three room house in a yard of overgrown grass with a dust driveway and a tall cottonwood as the sole source of beauty. Its a long ways from suburbia for prospective new marrieds and college grads. But the young man leaning against the fence post in the foreground looks pretty proprietorial, maybe even a bit smug, though maybe I'm reading that into his overly nonchalant pose. His tan is deep; his hair is too long; his hat is pulled way down against the sun, or maybe because it won't fit over all that hair.

There's still some of that kid in the guy heading south tomorrow. But its not the cocksure pose part; time and experience has tempered that! No, its the optimistic part, the part that sees a home in a shack, the potential of the good earth and ties to family and land and community. Times change, kids grow, but we are folks of deep roots and memory. We carry that wherever we go.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Snow Village and other Fantasies

When I was little, we brought our Christmas trees home to Orland Park from Callaway county Missouri in the trunk of our car. All the long cold way home, the essence of cedar oozed into the back seat and, warmed by the car heater, gave us a sneak preview of the fragrance of Christmas soon to grace a corner of our living room. While other families visited the virtual forests springing up on vacant town lots, or brought home nicely manicured long needled Scotch pines from a tree farm, we hung our ornaments with care on the ever so flexible,invisibly poky branches of our Missouri cedar. On any other day of any other year, that tree would have been mere "brush" and destined to join a fiery pyre with black locusts, persimmons, sassafras, but mostly, other cedars. But fortune and symmetry smiled and now it was adorned and adored in a flat land development on top of the black peat soil of northern Illinois.

Our trees looked delicate when trimmed, almost lacy, with the ornaments barely dangling from the thin branches and the old fashioned heavy tinsel reflecting the colors of the big egg shaped lights. We were diligent in watering the tree; in those days, the lights packed a thermal punch and a dried cedar was a torch waiting to happen. Laura and I loved every tree, every year; the little manger scene ornaments, the frosted glass balls, the heat seeking spinners, the glass birds with their fiber tails. But, most of all, we lived to put the village up under the tree.

I don't know the provenance of the village. It just was: a half dozen or so little bungalows of a very stiff and sturdy cardboard with red cellophane paned windows, snowy "tiled" roofs and hard green sponge shrubbery. Entwined with Christmas memories as they were, I always associated them with the houses in the neighborhood on Greenberry Road,where my grandparents lived: hipped roofs, stucco, and other design elements antithetical to the low eaves and cookie cutter facades of the treeless neighborhood we lived in.
In addition to the friendly homes with their warm Christmas lighted interiors, the village included a white spired church not unlike the Lutheran church we attended, if one ignored the crooked steeple that required a fresh bandage of Scotch tape annually to keep it upright.

In our village, it was always a Silent Night. The children were surely asleep in their beds,visions of sugarplums in their dreams, rosy cheeked after a day of building the smiling snowmen outside their doors. The little creche nestled close by the church and deer wandered down from the forests near the trunk of the tree. Snow, or billowy cotton full of last year's needles, piled around the bristly brushes of the villages "evergreens". Not a soul lingered in the bleak midwinter; all were apparently snug and warm indoors waiting for Santa to arrive.

With this history, it is only natural, meet and right that a Snow Village should spring to life at Spruce every Christmas. It is not a Snow Metroplex, by any means, but it is certainly a friendly place with amenities much beloved by residents of Spruce. Snow Village proper sports a chocolate shop the size of a department store, a bridal shop, a bank (to be used when paying for the weddings), a greenhouse (well, duh), a Krispy Kreme, a Starbucks (double duh...what came first, the coffee or the doughnut) and a couple of pleasant homes. There are two town Christmas trees, one with tiny colored LED bulbs and the other(thanks, Aaron!) an electric pink with sparkling tips, rather the Brobdingnagian version of the tinsel trees we children of the sixties remember. This year the Mayor is again presenting the keys to the city to Santa while the town band serenades. Unlike real life, the musicians' lips are NOT sticking to their mouthpieces; the children shopping do not have sodden feet, and the vehicles nestled in the snow drifts are not actually stuck. Everyone apparently has a Monica Martin Bailey attitude about the white stuff :)

On the other side of the dining room is the country crossroads with the grain elevator and the little white church from my childhood. A bride and groom are gazing rapturously at each other, blissfully ignorant of the weather and the proximity of their black getaway car. The church dates from Ann and Matt's wedding in 2001. More recent amenities to the country are the rustic gas station and old fashioned mill; at least the bride and groom will be able to fill up en route to their honeymoon.

Way farther out in the country, so far out that there is, literally, no electricity(on top of the pie safe), is the little creek and bridge, a barnyard of farm critters, the treehouse I can never get back into its styrofoam cocoon, some skaters, a photographer, a couple on a sleigh ride, and three children perpetually warming marshmallows on a cool orange fire. No vignette is spectacular; all embody simple and domestic pleasures. To some, Snow Village might be part and parcel of the Norman Rockwell school of life, maybe even more sticky and sugary. But, to me, its another very pleasant ritual of the Christmas season, a tradition with its start after Thanksgiving and its farewell after New Year's, and a very present reminder of the spirit we should all adopt and will, if we're lucky.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Food Armistice Day

Ok, you foodie grinches, where were you hiding when we stopped by the St. Joseph HyVee tonight? You should have come down from your narrow insulated rarefied studios and pushed a cart. It was a zoo, a mob, a cacophony, a mishmash, a potpourri, a gumbo, a goulash, a shepherd's pie, an Irish stew. A bouillabaise? Nah, probably, being St. Joe, a buffet, a smorgasbord, would better fit the bill. There were folks loading up on pop, milk, still buying their fowl, still buying their whole dinner, judging by the number of (paper or plastic?) bags. There were folks stocking the produce aisle with carrots, apples, broccoli, any variety of greens. There was a helpful young man attempting to discern what cheese exactly the man-sent-to-the-store-with-a-list was supposed to bring home. A lady with just one pumpkin pie. Another lady with but two bags of frozen hash browns. A young man with a package of deli cheese and a pound of Greek olives from the bar. A man with a three year old in one arm and a red plastic basket in the other. A case of bumper carts at the canned goods end cap. No one, but no one in the frozen foods aisle. People buying nuts, grapes, bacon, egg nog, muffins, mushrooms, pickles, baguettes.....not exactly the bare necessities, but the stuff of which holidays are made. Everyone was busy, motivated, courteous if preoccupied, but primarily intent on the business of celebration.

What an amazing place this supermarket is! A typical store in a typical city with more choice than anyone needs to live well and eat better. Can anyone possibly need that many apples? All colors, organic and not, names unfamiliar, bagged or shined. Carrots with tops, carrots in bags, carrots baby, carrots pencil thin. A deli of cheeses at one end of the store; a dairy of cheeses on the opposite wall. Generic milk; boutique milk in cunning glass flasks.

I was there to pick up the grace notes of our holiday meal. I had my heart set on a table with two pottery bowls of green and black olives (one blue cheese stuffed, please) and some soft mild herbed cheese. How about some sesame crackers for that cheese? Oh, and wait, look at the size of the Holiday Seedless Grapes! My inviting table of tasty morsels has a good start. I needed the fixings for a broccoli salad, but splurged on two expensive dressings (olive oil based with blue cheese morsels suspended, an oriental ginger vinaigrette). Wouldn't impress a true gourmand, but will give me the private satisfaction of adding a fillip of extra care to my contribution to the table.

The operative mood overall was of bustling excitement and anticipation. No tussling over the last item on the shelf, ala the hottest gadget at Christmas, because this was a supermarket in the breadbasket of the U.S. at Thanksgiving, the very definition of beauty, bounty, and variety. The baguette was sliced and toasted for a peppered dip (a dab of chili to pep it up); apples became partners with ginger snaps for a pumpkin dip; the olives and cheeses did indeed find their way to a pottery bowls and platters. All these were warm ups for a kitchen steaming with pyrex dishes of yams and beans, glazed carrots and green rice. Snicker salad and deviled eggs. Biscuits, yeasty rolls, apple loaf. The crowning glories of cranberry stuffed pork loin, goose, and the impossibly named turduken, carved by their respective creators. Food for family, for company, for fun. Replicated in kitchens across our nation.

And just for this day, food for love. No food police, no food wars, no politics.

And, Lord knows, no calorie counters!!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Vote For this Man

I thought I needed to wait a decent interval after the mid term elections to pen this post; after all, the echoes of the word 'vote' have barely faded from the news channels and the last campaign signs are blowing into the fence rows to disintegrate with the winter winds and snows. On the other hand, the potential candidates may not have begun jockeying for position with appearances on above mentioned news shows, but several have thrown down the gauntlet in the form of assorted books and appearances. Thus it begins again....

Nope, I won't get a chance to speak out front of a crowd for this candidate; no one will ever consider me an impartial voice. On the other hand, I stand front and center as the authority on the candidate's actions, viewpoints and abilities. I've been there and done that. After all, we've worked as partners in love and war, work and play, politics and religion, richer, poorer, sickness, health....well, you get my drift.

So, I'm making my campaign pitch for my husband in his bid to be the next president of an organization we've devoted a lot of energy to during our adult lives, Missouri Farm Bureau. I've pictured myself making a nominating speech for Blake, figuring I can best describe the efforts I know he makes to be an advocate for the industry he believes in and loves. It is more than self serving, this belief in farming as a vocation; he sees the health of the food production system as a humanitarian effort, a moral imperative for consumers present and future. The work we do now cannot fail to have an increasing ripple effect on the people who will eat in the future. We have a family farm and we sincerely and earnestly hope our children and some of our children's children will grow crops on the land we work now, but that is a personal hope, the kind any parent or small business owner might have for their life's work. No, being leader of our farm organization has a bigger obligation and opportunity: making it possible to sustain the system that has, almost miraculously, provided the growth in agricultural production unpredicted and unprecedented in human history. Whew! What a load! But one need not be a particularly acute observer to recognize that the means to our end of abundant food are under siege by folks with the idea that "technology", "scale", "genetic modification" are terms that lead directly to cruelty to animals, degradation of the environment and the destruction of human health. This is a battle Blake is eager, willing, and well prepared to join. I know, because it has possessed many of the working hours behind the wheel of a combine, or pickup, or at the desk of the computer evening after evening.

Life on the farm has never been simple,or easy. As farmers, we accept as part of the job the risks of weather and income. But we have never once doubted that way we perform our job and its outcome is not only good, but inherently Moral. I may have my doubts at times about the long term necessity to the world of another flat of Super Elfin Paradise Impatiens, or even cherry tomatoes, but I KNOW the world needs our glorious glacial soil, our temperamental but temperate climate, our Grant Wood repetition of corn and beans, beans and corn. We never needed to convince our consumer friends in the past; they were appreciative, or at worst, blissfully ignorant of the nuts and bolts and nitty gritty of the food in their local grocery. But times change, I guess, and abundance is no longer sufficient. At each and every level, our methods are under intense scrutiny and sometimes found not up to snuff. We find ourselves fighting an evasive battle, knocking down one straw man after another.

So, vote for this guy. Vote for Blake. Give him a chance to take the bully pulpit of our farm organization and defend our vocation, our living, our countryside, our philosophy. This is a man who has been faithful in the little things, who takes care of family, farm, philosophy, future. Before we were married, I could see him jostling grandkids on his knee, and, bless all, that vision has come to life. Yep, he can't make it through Burn Notice without falling asleep on the couch; yes, he might tell bad jokes, or be flippant when you might not find it called for. But, take it from a person who knows well and honestly: if you want a friend and earnest eloquent voice for those who feed the world, this is your guy....and this is my chance to say so.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Now We Can Give Thanks

The cycle of seasons progresses apace with pickups, hunter orange, deer unlucky enough to be flushed and squished along roads from the interstate to gravel. I saw the first flush of ducks high above today. I told Blake I wished I could paint during this season, but all I can do is describe the light, the textures, the grass, the barn boards, as reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth. The fading sun leaves deep shadows and well defined planes on every farm stead. This year, a few trees still sport glowing crimson leaves and the crab apples are resplendent with jeweled fruit, even as some folks jump the gun on Thanksgiving and hang their Christmas lights in celebration of the milder weather.

I suffer no such temptation. The Thanksgiving feast and festivities are coming to our house so pumpkins still line the steps and the mantle above the fireplace is warm with autumn colors. E-vites have been sent and menu possibilities fill the ether. The kitchen and dining room will groan with tempting dishes as each family contributes a special favorite and most bring along something new and experimental as well. Without closing my eyes, I can smell the aromas and feel the warmth of a dozen steaming oven-to-table dishes. For once, the entry hall, the stairs, the dining room, the kitchen will ALL be warm without the aid of the gas log. The sound level will be dangerous. We are too numerous to add the clink of china to the conversation in my imagination, but wine and water glasses, sippies and coffee mugs will overflow the sink even as turkey tableware fills the trash.

Glen gave a thoughtful sermon on prayer last week, reminding us of the example set by our Lord regarding prayer. He showed us a particularly useful mnemonic device utilizing the word ACTS. ACTS stands in for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. The obvious lesson of the sermon is how frequently we turn our prayers on their heads, beginning and maybe even ending with what we want or need: Supplication. I was reminded of the show we just finished, in which Cinderella begins and ends the musical with the fairy tale words, 'I wish'. The entire story revolves around the consequences of those self centered words, both happy and tragic. The wishes of the characters range from trivial (I wish to go to the festival) to the heart felt (I wish we had a child!). But in each case, the wishes set into motion events that prove that the "ends" don't necessarily "justify the means".

This is why Jesus gives us direction. Start at the beginning, recognizing the greatness of our Father, the Creator and Sustainer of all. As we praise Him, we are acutely aware of our shortcomings. And if we aren't, then the prompt 'Confession' shows us our error! Don't come before the altar without asking forgiveness; get right with your Father, children.

Only then is it time for Thanksgiving. Think about that! But after reflection, we will be even more thankful, not just for temporal blessings, but for the existence of such a powerful God and His overwhelming grace in forgiving our wrongs against Him and each other. Every Sunday, we sit in a circle and let the little kids pray. Every week, we attempt to speed the process by telling them to tell us just ONE thing they are thankful for. But they can't do it! Instead, prayer time stretches way past the ability of the three year olds of the group to sit still as each little child tells God thanks for every person they know. The little children lead us by example, I laugh to myself, even as I attempt to keep the kids around me on their carpet squares.

I am the first to admit I always get to Supplication in my prayer. So many to pray for! So many people, loved ones, tests, travel, illnesses, for which to ask aid! So many answered prayers as well. Its pretty hard for me to keep things in proper order as I drive down the road, or, for that matter, lay my head on my pillow! One more thing to confess, I guess.

We may sing the Grace song on Thanksgiving...or perhaps Charlie will offer his usual thoughtful and inclusive thanks before our meal. At any rate, with lots of kids in the house, I doubt we stand for a lengthy prayer. But as I cook, set the table, confer over appetizers, wait for buzzers to go off, and welcome our loving family to the meal, I will, this year, try to spend some time in Adoration and Confession, even on this Thanksgiving day.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Baby Steps

Annie can't find the bath tub; its blue, it should be easy enough to find among all the baby things that are re emerging from the basement and assorted plastic tubs, but it hasn't turned up yet....
When I've stopped lately to pick up Aaron or Lizzie, or just to visit, the signs of a new arrival have been unmistakable. Here, a new car seat in the corner; there, the pack 'n play. Matt spent at least a month re arranging and remodeling the entire kid's portion of the second floor. Aaron got the double guest bed; Lizzie traded her dresser/changing table for a garage sale find painted a neat clean white. The baby gets new shelves, a closet, courtesy of Daddy's carpentry: something new for the third child, the second boy, who is going to see a lot of hand me downs for quite a while. But everyone gets an upgrade...Aaron has a grown up camo bedspread; Lizzie a new girly violet paint job to cover the nursery fish theme.
Is that new baby in any sense of the world old hat? Not ever. Aaron was number one and I couldn't stop feeling a sense of amazement that I was standing there holding a grandson, of all things, that our daughter and her husband were now parents, just like us. We were on the same side of the ledger from here on out. From his first days, Aaron played with another little boy's Brio trains, and the blocks his grandma, mommy, auntie and uncle broke in many times over. But he learned his baby steps in a new house for his grandparents, even though this big old home will always be grandma and grandpa's to our grandkids. Aaron's books in the tv cabinet are now read by Lizzie, Gabe and Abbie, too. The plastic spoons and measuring cups that have always been his bath toys are now requested at bath time by his sister and cousins. The rocker that was mine as a small child and the caned chair that was mine at my grandma's has been joined in the living room by my granny's rocking chair. All three are the perfect size for three year olds to move around and rock over each other's toes.

Aaron was the first to sit at the kitchen island in my mother's old high chair; when the other three came along, I invested in booster chairs so we could record Father's Day pies, roasting ears, pizzas, icing Christmas cookies three at a time. What an unforetold blessing! How I never tire of the antics of these three cousins at every age to the present and constantly breathe my prayers of thanks for the chance to see them grow up together right here under our noses.

I remember the day our third was born vividly. It was a typical August day, it was my forecast due date, and labor commenced as I was washing the breakfast dishes. We'd added onto the house, but the baby's room was still our bedroom and the two bedroom addition was only roughly finished. The guys were building the grain bin. We didn't know who Ben was until the moment he was born; Blake was there, the first of his children he watched delivered.

The night before Lizzie was born, Matt helped Blake install a new fridge. That morning, I sent Kenzie a text telling her Lizzie was a beautiful girl. Then it rained, and rained and rained and Lee and Ryan came to our house to spend the night, just for caution's sake. And that early, dark morning, Lee called to me that they were headed for the hospital. We went to work at our muddy greenhouse and waited for that welcome call that Gabe and Abbie were here, blessedly big and healthy for being two. We wended our way through the country to find roads clear of water. Every one has a story.

And now, we're waiting for baby Josh, due to join us on his great Grandpa Charlie's birthday. The kids are asleep upstairs...Papa Blake is asleep on the couch. Its late, but I figure I won't sleep that well tonight any way. Godspeed, Mommy and Daddy on your trip tomorrow morning and God's blessing on you, new baby boy.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Lost among the Stars

Actually, this post isn't about celestial beings at all; rather its a quick and dirty reiteration of one of my recurring themes: stepping out of one's normal role, gritty reality, and routine. Its OK to pretend, within limits. As a matter of fact, to stretch one's imagination may be what lifts us above the level of brute and drudge and gives life its spice, flavor, and zippity-do-dah.

I did not love the hand of music dealt me this fall musical season at first. Or at second, when Blake and I listened to the CD of songs on one of our many road trips. The music itself was off balanced, full of strange meters and frequent changes. The story was not happy, not funny, and full of the dark fantasies that define the original fairy tales as set to print by the brothers Grimm. I remember going to a movie about those brothers when I was quite young; it terrified and disturbed me without going into the stories at all. Life to the brothers Grimm was indeed nasty, brutish and short, even when one followed the rules and behaved as expected. Lord help those who deviated from correct behaviors! No time out for these characters! Immediate terrifying consequences commenced.

But while this musical was modern in some sense (feeling bad for a wolf's mother?), it hewed close to the original spirit of the most old fashioned of fairy tales. Instead of characters black of heart or white as snow, the characters shift in and out of nobility and avarice, selflessness and sacrifice, and we, in turn, grieve or sympathize or care less as the tales proceed. Is there a 'happily ever after'? Sure, briefly, at the end of the first act, at a stage when we, in the audience, know without a doubt that that the next shoe is about to fall.

But, enough about the show. You should go see it, but I don't expect you'll enjoy it much the first time out. What a shame to create a work that your listeners will only truly appreciate after a month or so of practice! Clearly, Mr. Sondheim is not hurting for fans, and I know for a fact that some of the folks working on this production have seen the show multiple times and are somewhat obsessed with the piece. I understand and sympathize with such obsessions; I clearly remember the months it took me to get back into the real world after reading (or consuming!) The Lord of the Rings years ago. This type of overwhelming immersion happens to me nearly every time I play in a show; its not necessarily a good thing, but part of my make up.

It is disconcerting to wake up in the middle of the night with someone else's music so wrapped around your brain that you can't escape. To be like Sisyphus, pushing the same phrases up the hill, watching them roll down, then repeating them endlessly if you don't wake up enough to consciously change the tune. It may be foolishness, but there are days I can't shake the lingering melancholy of sad songs and stories, even as I go about my normal and quite mundane routine. How does one combat his own imagination?

This tendency toward total immersion is not necessarily a bad thing: I like to think it serves the purpose of speed bumps, slowing us down, giving us a different view of our surroundings, making us look up and around, instead of having our noses stuck in our own circumstances or wearing the blinders that limit our wider vision. We all need a sabbatical of some type, a chance to be that other side of ourselves, the someone we aren't because we work, we serve, we need to sleep, we're too young, we're over the hill.

How marvelous to be the kids on the stage, acting the same parts, saying the same lines, singing the same songs, that the pros do on and off Broadway. What an experience to BE the same character created by Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim. Forever and ever, you know that music in a way that someone listening to a soundtrack or a performance never can. You may never be great, but you touched something great, and it was more than a vicarious joy.

And if you're in the pit, you enjoy at a distance once more removed. But you're still part of the art, the melody, the obsession, the music, even as you orbit the stars like an asteroid in the dark.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Toy Story

Ryan told us we should eat at the Range Cafe. He thought so highly of his meals there, he brought a cookbook home and fixed us supper ala Range one evening. Not wanting to miss out on a good thing, I looked up the address on our fall trip to New Mexico and we planned our lunch around the Range Cafe in Bernalillo. The entrance sported a Western mosaic, but the gotcha moment hit me after we were seated: I had been under the impression that "range" referred to the dry plains along the Rio Grande. Au Contraire! "Range" meant "stove" in my Midwestern parlance and there they were, arranged like a choir in the loft, overlooking the restaurant: play stoves of varied sizes, colors, ages. And near the middle, colored deep carnation pink, the spittin' image of the plastic stove my sister and I had in our play kitchen. We had two stoves and fridges, as I remember, both sets pink. One set was metal and pale pink and the other plastic and the color of tropical punch. We never had a life size set of appliances, though year after year we longed for the play kitchens in the Sears and Montgomery Ward toy catalogs at Christmas, but we wore our scaled down play kitchens out; maybe they survived us and were donated to the nursery at Sunday school, but its far more likely that the hinges failed and the cardboard backs collapsed.

We were lucky though; we had a fabulous child size hutch my grandfather made, and a whole houseful of doll furniture my grandfather built and my grandmother upholstered. The little china people were fragile and were born to a privileged existence; the father wore a bow tie, mother was dressed in a linen print dress, and the children had a nanny/nurse. I was always captivated by the family's appliances: a sturdy black and white gas range matched the one in our kitchen, but the wooden icebox clearly belonged to the same age as the pink cheeked dimpled family of the twenties. We could even set their table with a few blue enameled dishes from the past: a platter, the coffee pot. Laura and I had a doll house of our own, a two storied tin Colonial, but the plastic furniture it contained also stood a distant second to my mother's toys.

We had three Barbies, of the most vintage style. Barbie was the red haired "bubble-head" as we called the 'do. Sylvia was another "bubble-head" but in basic black. Ginger had curly bangs and a black ponytail; she may not have been a blonde, but she was the most glamorous of our three dolls. At that time,Barbies, in the generic sense, came wearing a one piece strapless bandeau swimsuit, pearl earrings, and toeless high heeled shoes. Heavy eye shadow and mascara was frequently augmented by whichever little girl was in charge of her makeup. These Barbies were nearly indestructible, with rigid straight arms and legs and heads that could pop off and on with little effort. My Grandma the seamstress kept Sylvia at her house as a model for several years, until she could make play clothes in her sleep. Every year for Christmas, we would receive a new outfit for our dolls as well as brand new toasty flannel nightgowns in matching or coordinated fabrics. We had a couple of purchased outfits: I remember a shiny green satin tight skirt with a flounced overskirt, topped with a white satin shell and a short matador type jacket. Well dressed women of the sixties wore hats and this Barbie outfit came with a little green pillbox hat that Jackie Kennedy could have worn. Actually, some of the prettiest outfits my grandmother sewed could have graced the White House: a floral sheath topped by a cape back tweedy coat with three quarter length sleeves, cuffs and scarf of the same floral print as the dress. As skirts grew shorter, Barbie kept pace, though it became more difficult for her to be modest since she couldn't bend her knees.
Though our Barbies never had a pink sports car, or boyfriends named Ken, they too lived in some pretty classy digs. My mother and father joined forces to create a splendid bedroom for the dolls. A flat white scarf box became a big bed, with a bedspread of trendy pink and brown trimmed with eyelet and topped with bolster pillows in a reverse print. There were two padded stools padded with cotton balls and upholstered with the same fabric. The mirror from one of my mom's compacts became the mirror on a four drawer dresser with working drawers and a tiled top. A small latched formica covered box, no doubt a refugee from some electrical part, was painted with a floral motif and became a trunk Wooden lids from perfume bottles, spools, and beads became lamps. The large open box had curtains at the windows and was papered with the same wallpaper that graced our bathroom. It was a masterpiece.
What we didn't have on hand in the way of furniture, we built ourselves with wooden blocks. These blocks and their wagon were made by my wood working grandfather and are still the stuff of roads, hangars, and runways to this day.
But the blocks were not only tables and chairs. Like most little girls, Laura and I were crazy in love with horses. We had Breyer horses in all sizes, some given to us, others purchased with coins carefully saved from weeding or other chores. We made a whole herd of horses from pipecleaners and yarn; our little town had a dime store where we perused the choices of black, browns, golds and other possible horsey hues. Our ponies were all named,from imagination or from fictional sources like Marguerite Henry's tales or Walter Farley's. Various dramas took place on our bedroom floor or even in the gardens during the summer. When my mom allowed, we got free use of all the artificial flowers she stored up and a whole bag full of colorful scarves. With these we created "Paradise", a wondrous place for our play herd. We were nothing if not anthropomorphic.
I don't remember much in the way of purchased toys. Our aunts and uncles bought us paints, paper, pastels, colored pencils, and books. I'm pretty certain our male cousins didn't get these same gifts! But we used them all, especially the Venus colored pencils, which drew bright deep hues without much pressure. All other colored pencils literally paled in comparison.
I still check out all the toy catalogs that fill the mailbox as Christmas nears. Some of the old toys are back, if indeed they ever left. We had a box of colored wooden tiles called Tangrams that we received as a gift....sure enough, these are still available. I can't wait to buy Colorforms for the kids; we spent many an hour making pictures with them. Even the Sunday School nursery had them, which really puts them back aways; we were pretty young when we were "old enough" to sit still through church. The church had an abbreviated assortment of Tinker Toys; we had some Lincoln Logs, but never enough to really build something substantial. But the best thing of all at the church was PlayDoh. I loved everything about it: the texture, the softness, the colors, the smell. Even though we were supposed to use 'home made' Playdoh for craft times, it was nothing close to the real thing. Did we have Playdoh at home? I don't remember. We did have real gray modeling clay which we carved and formed into little animals and dinosaurs which we painted and kept on our dressers til various appendages fell off.
Laura and I played games too....card games like Rummy and War. We learned to play cutthroat Hearts and Spades with my Granny and father. Granny was kind and funny; my dad used card games to teach life lessons about winning, losing, and the concept of no quarter. Part of the game was to keep a straight face even when you got stuck with the Queen. No handicap was given for age during Monopoly games either. My sister and I played endless games of Chinese checkers because we were evenly matched and we liked using my mother's old board with the marbles stored in tubes within the board.
These days Aaron is the engineer building structures and machines and vehicles with complicated attributes from Legos; Gabe is the farmer and pilot, gathering a stack of his favorite planes and trucks, heavy on the orange. Abbie is the artist with hieroglyphics penciled on a multitude of sticky notes and Lizzie is the domestic goddess, filling her hand bag with, well, anything and everything, talking on a domino (her phone) and laying her baby in the cradle in the living room. Best of all are the times a whole new world comes to life built by two, three or even four young imaginations. Then the toys, old, new, used, become merely props and not the main act in the play.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Road Food

Back before we had cell phones, we survived harvest using a number of two way radios. We didn't all have them: most of the pickups had a receiver, one combine had a receiver, one a portable. The guy driving the auger wagon had a he could hear exactly where the wagon was supposed to be and how fast it should be going when it got there. We wives had base units at home, better than nothing, but leaving a wide margin of error. For instance, one would prepare a meal, then call the guy on the machine. He would give a destination, and a range, rather like the probability that a particular electron would be in a specific spot orbiting the nucleus of an atom. One would depart with victuals safely stowed, aiming for the intersection that would lead to a food exchange, knowing full well that the time, the place, and even the vehicle could be one, two, or more standard deviations off the norm. Only God could hear me, and I know I'm forgiven, but some colorful language was employed more than a few times as I set off in hot (hot!) pursuit of my particular responsibility, airborne over terrace basins, road ruts, heedless of dust and reason.

But the two ways had their moments. From our home on the eastern edge of radio range and high on a hill, we could pick up several ongoing conversations on a daily basis. One group was all business, primarily telling their drivers where to deliver fertilizer wagons and trucks. It was some consolation to know they couldn't find each other on the road either. One group was obviously another family farm with at least one member who was either hard of hearing or deliberately ignoring all pleas for conversation. "Are you in there, Harold" became a running joke on our farm, even as we tried to remember what we might be saying on the airwaves that other listeners would find amusing.

But the most consistent of all was the combine crew somewhere south and east of us. The two way would be quietly snap, crackle and popping until they came to work. But once they manned their machines, there was just one topic of conversation: FOOD. Starting not long after 10 a.m., these fellas would speculate about who would fetch dinner and when they would fetch dinner. The one fact they would NEVER discuss was just what they would EAT for dinner. Nope, the only item on the menu available, apparently, cheeseburgers, because that was the universal subject of the food conversation. Day after day, week after week, month fading into next month, this combine crew spent half their working hours discussing cheeseburgers.

Well, by the middle of November, I sometimes feel we've been in a rut food-wise, though nothing as tediously repetitive as a steady diet of cheeseburgers. When the kids were little, I attempted to produce a real meal once a day, replete with plates and tableware, so Lee and Ann could see their father during harvest hours. Then we ate a mom/kid type supper of eggs, or grilled cheese, or hot dogs while Blake made do with a sack lunch repast. But by the end of harvest, the notion of loading the dishes, the kids, the thermos, the theoretically hot food, into the car, spending fifteen minutes wolfing food and balancing assorted plastic containers and Crock pots, then bringing the whole mess home, cooled and congealed, got to be pretty unappealing and Blake ate by himself in lonely splendor after children had eaten at home. This became even more imperative by the time Ben came along. We ate meals in the combine with one kid perched behind the seat, one on a cooler on the floor and little Ben on my lap. That was before the days of buddy seats, and I wore a pretty good black and blue mark on my behind.

We've had some feasts. My birthday falls right smack in the middle of bean harvest. Many times Millie hosted an evening meal with birthday cake for a host of dusty family members coming in to eat in shifts. But one year, we ate down at the bin site of our rented farm on a bright lovely perfect fall day and another featured fish Millie and Charlie caught in Minnesota that summer. Its been years since we finished harvest before Halloween, so trick or treating is either preceded (for older ones) or finished (for little ones) with soups and spooky cupcakes at Grandma Millie's. It may not be eating at home, but it is home cooked food featuring metal spoons instead of plastic.

One year a CNN crew decided to film a feature piece on harvest and came to visit Hurst Farms. I was giggling inside as I cooked the bacon and egg breakfast they expected to see on a farm table and even more tickled when a closeup of my griddle appeared in the final version. Eating in the field is standard operating procedure, but these guys wanted film of our great big happy family spreading our noontime repast out among pines at the 'home place'. Out came the tables and the table cloths; the last time Millie's yard had looked so festive was a wedding rehearsal supper. We had put our best foot forward, but typical it was not! Even this fall we enjoyed one of these surreal meals in the field when a Japanese delegation came to visit and Kevin stood, surrounded by Japanese taking notes, answering question after question while Nancy set up a table of Matt's catering and served up tailgate fare of the finest kind. Of course we typically drive up from miles around for ribs and fixings directly at our 'business casual' dress. We had terrific fun with that occasion. I always appreciated hearing from Lydia as suppertime approached and I was helping dump trucks, offering to bring out sandwiches or pizza for the entire crew. During combine season, a good hot 'slab of grease' can really hit the spot.

My meals on wheels these days can be carried in a HyVee bag. I eschew cold cuts unless desperate; we eat plenty of sandwich food in the spring. Tortillas, pasta, burgers; harvest fare is beef based. Chili travels well and stays warm a long time; tomorrow may well bring a meatball sandwich. I bake apple bread often as a stand in for dessert, or if the day has been particularly rough, an infusion of Junior Mints may be required.

A discussion of road food is not complete without coffee. Coffee drinkers suffer during harvest, not for lack of availability but for lack of quality. I bought a serious go mug for Blake as my contribution to hot coffee this fall, but nothing can compensate for having to put up with that nasty metallic aftertaste from a stainless steel Thermos. I tried to satisfy the epicure one year with a glass lined Thermos. But HA! Just imagine how long that equipment lasted rolling on the floor of the John Deere. Nope, we just enjoy the rainy mornings when we drink the whole pot at home and look forward to winter. And I continue to heat up those antique and indestructible Thermoses just like the one my dad took to work decades ago.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Arts and Crafts

What better way to spend a brisk early October afternoon than in the pursuit of beauty. You might choose football, or hunting, or biking, or be virtuous and clean up the yard and wash windows. Today, though, we chose to wend our way north hopscotching eastern Nebraska on the North Hills Pottery Tour.
This is the third year we've spent a Saturday afternoon in the esoteric and impractical pursuit of pottery. We join a procession of SUVs, foreign and domestic, and conspicuously green or artfully odd automobiles, creeping at the snail's pace of vehicles unfamiliar with the dust of gravel roads en route to the farthest North stop of the tour, Big Table pottery.

Big Table came as a shock our first visit. The mailbox is ensconced in a cocoon of fierce pointy horns. "Pods" and other vaguely organic shapes hang from the tree limbs and spring from the turf. The tin roofed shed covers the open brick kiln with a little white troll of some kind blessing the contents. Big Table has coffee and cider in the shed and napkins protecting the cookies from flies. Today, the potters are conspicuous....why? Some combination of hair, skin, body type, accessories, perhaps? Such ethereal waifs to bring forth these ponderous slabs of earth. Nothing ephemeral about these pieces; there are gray jointed pipes of clay holding sprays of lilies, odd footed decanters looking like they'd skitter back under the bed when one wasn't looking, slabs of red clay with luminous glass dots and puddles of color. There is a whole set of dishware, dinner plates, bowls, dessert plates of a hue and texture reminiscent of the concrete sidewalk we just poured at the greenhouse. This pottery is so lacking in glaze, pattern and color, I believe the artists took the words "earthy" and "elemental" to the logical extreme: these pieces could have been formed before single celled beings divided to form life. At Big Table, the most appealing creations are the motley but friendly pack of pooches greeting the visitors.

Down the road we go, none the poorer for our experience, into the little town of Fort Calhoun. In the past, the Too Far North Winery has been entertaining for its nice selection of Nebraska wines and its very pleasant front porch and decor. Today, the place is humming with activity and we can barely get in the door. Last year we labeled the pottery at Too Far North as "art", our code for "too expensive for purchase" and "where would we ever put this?" Today, there are two potters exhibiting at Too Far North. One young man displays monumental pieces that could conceivably be considered sculpture and little triangular puzzle pie slices of clay I think the three year olds could make with playdoh and plastic knives. Don't get me wrong; they are clever constructions and would really be fun to doodle with while at your desk on your phone. They just don't add up to more than a hundred of my dollars. But this young man could have come from central casting and makeup: his black mane was wavy and his features chiseled. I'm sure his teeth were straight too.
The other artist was young, too, but bald. He was a high school teacher in Sioux Falls. But he had something else going for him: he had a long line of buyers. While I assumed some of the footed jars and irregular vases were his work, there was a shelf of tall concave tumblers glazed with swirls that might be waves, or a mountain range, and vertical ribs of color that could have been trees or blowing grass. There were comfortable mugs, either tall for maximum heat retention or broad, so one could wrap both hands around them. I was captivated by one with a wide bowl swirled with glaze on the bottom, dotted on one side like a starry night and the other like chocolate chips. He had graceful bowls of modest proportions and reasonable prices. Was that the reason for the line of customers? I don't think it was money at all; I think his work was pretty. It utilized the raw materials of earth, but borrowed the motifs of the natural world as visualized in the mind's eye. We didn't have to use much imagination to bring back a pleasant memory when we picked up his pottery. And we'd use it often: these were pieces to get out of the cupboard, nothing so precious it need gather dust.

That's one of the reasons I enjoy the Pottery Tour. All the creators are artists in the sense they have a vision of what clay should be. Some make terrifying masks in stark black and white and gory red. Some pieces are luminous and so delicately glazed and decorated, they appear to have been transported from the farthest Oriental palace, not St. Joseph, Missouri.
I hope to try my hand at this craft some day. I know it takes skill and practice, not just a vision. In the mean time, its a pleasant way to meditate on the different interpretations of "Craft" and "Art".

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Dancing Elephants

The house is empty; I have stockpiled the inputs for a major home improvement project; the sink is full of go cups; and there is a mixture of grains in the washer and dryer. It is harvest time.

I have a love/hate relationship with harvest. We had rain Thursday night and sprinkles Saturday; picking Indian corn led to boots that weighed in at 10# each with the mud on the soles. Never mind, of COURSE the combines will go anywhere, even if the wagons have half mile, 3/4 mile hauls to the trucks. The belt on the big auger broke. The new grain head isn't here yet. The corn is blown down and full of dirt. We know now, before we even start, that there will not be enough storage. The family part of our family farm hasn't settled into a routine, leading to minor disagreements. By the end of harvest, the family part of the family farm will need some serious space from each other, leading to minor disagreements. was a drop dead gorgeous day in late September. The sun was so bright on the garden, I had to keep angling away while I deadheaded perennials. We stopped in late afternoon to celebrate Bella's birthday, with the farmers arriving from one direction and the families from another. I took Blake back to his pickup, wondering yet again why he left the windows open to gather quite so many fat lazy slow late season flies. The combines were sitting at the corner, squat and towering at the same time, pearly white corn kernels piled high on every corner.

The weather forecast is good. The grain is drier than it was at any time last year. Sometime this week, we'll achieve the rhythm that harvest assumes when all is well. We are never a well oiled machine; the best we can aspire to is a tumbling herky jerkiness akin to the domino effect. No just in time delivery for us; we are a ballet of blindfolded elephants.

But that is a part of harvest I do love. The monumental sweep across the terraced hills of the combines; the auger wagons following behind, playing catchup, making their own trails back to auger or trucks. The fluid drain of the grain from the tank; the explosion of dry beans on the windshield; the roar of hydraulics as the combines pull out to shift into road gear when a field is done. Each piece of the machine tumbles into the next. The combines move, the wagons follow quickly, someone brings at least one pickup. The machinery fills; the combines sit, the wagons sit...something must be broken in the chain of command. An auger? Or is it just taking that long to transport all the rest of the dominos from farm to farm. All over the Midwest, farmers, farmers' sons, wives, grandmas, daughters, grandpas and as many kids as can fit in the cabs partake in the dance. It takes thermoses, paper plates, Tupperware, iced tea, Snickers and Pringles, crock pots, paper towels, wipies, Windex, ibuprofen, trash bags, phone chargers, apples by the bushel, pizza, batteries......and these are just the necessities for one combine driver.

I like to ride at night. Once the kids were grown and gone, keeping Blake company in the evening became our ritual. I bring out some hot coffee and chocolate, or a bottle of wine and two plastic cups, and we spend our evening together listening to post season baseball, or jazz on XM. Sometimes we don't turn on the radio at all. In the hills, you might not see the other combine at all unless we dump at the same time. All points of reference blend into the darkness so someone leaves lights on in a truck; the night is disorienting. The skies are bright with stars though and time passes quickly together as the head chews up the stalks and the ears bounce into the machine. We scare up birds, little gray birds that scatter up from the ground. Occasionally we chase a rabbit. A good deal for the bunny in the dark; his life expectancy with hawks on the thermals is not good. Nothing is as quiet as the night when the combines shut down and you stumble through the stalks and the dew to your chilly pickup.

Not so for the bin site. I don't dump trucks like I used to, but it was always a challenge to be where you needed to be to make sure the auger didn't run empty, the auger didn't run too full, the truck was raised when needed, etc., and still preserve one's hearing. I got lots of quality reading done dumping trucks, but was never sorry to leave the noise behind. When we first started farming, we had a portable grain dryer; it was a tremendous bottleneck in the harvest process, but added the smell of ....hmm, maybe steamed cornbread?

I picture harvest from space as we would observe an anthill. Each indistinguishable vehicle creeping along its path with its own distinct purpose and destination looking like so much chaos and confusion from a distance. Crash! goes one of the elephants in the ballet as an unloading auger catches a tree limb. The monumental procession grinds to a halt as the elevator shuts down for maintenance. Parts have to be fetched from 3 hours away. It rains.

Still, when we are all moving, our individual tasks achieve a greater purpose. The fields empty; the bins fill, and, we can see a job completed. And that's the best feeling of all.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Fighting Words.

Ephesians 6:13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.

Poor hope. We treat hope as a commonplace, as in 'I hope it doesn't rain'. Or we use it as a less than graceful adverb to ward off any number of mundane boogeymen: ('hopefully'). After the general election of 2008, some of us never wanted to hear the word 'hope' again, embodied as it was in the wishful thinking of millions who were destined to be disappointed in any earthly prince, not only this particular one.

Let's forget all that and recognize hope for what it can be: our personal Maglite in this world of troubles.When our power is out and we are frozen with foreboding, hope is the beacon that gets us safely through the alley, the woods, the basement, any of the prisons we find ourselves in. Emily Dickinson called hope, 'the thing with feathers', giving it the power to lift us from doldrums great and small. Paul gives hope greater weight, calling it 'an anchor of the soul.' Whether hope is a fluttering thing lifting us up or our ballast against stormy waves, we should seek our hope and work to hope, knowing it a part of the great triad of the Christian heart, 'faith, hope, and love.' Hope is not flippant, not superficial, not skin deep, not easy to accomplish. Another verse of Hebrews links faith with hope, assurance and conviction; all weighty rock solid terms.

Hope yields nothing to worry. Hope is the antonym to despair. We don't have to be Pollyannas; that belies the state of humankind. We aren't owed the results we hope and pray for. But we owe our faith and future the effort it takes to hope.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Saints in the Sand

Back from New Mexico, from one of the centers of civilization for North America. We wandered amid the volcanic debris of Petroglyphs National Monument, reading the blurbs on the trailposts, purporting to explain via the experts what each picture meant to the creator. What really made some of our fellow humans perch out on that sharp black scree slope, laboring stone upon stone to leave animals, monsters, swirls, faces, arrows and other unknown creative scribbles. We didn't follow every trail, but there is no hospitable shady spot nearby, no protected cave or shade tree. Nothing but geology writ large, a canvas of stone spread over several square miles and media built to take whatever Mother Nature can dish out. You want a lasting impression? Try basalt.

I am always intrigued by art of the past, and the older the art, the more piquant the notion of the continuity of humanity, the similarities outweighing the differences, much like the genetic blueprint of all beings varies a surprisingly small amount. Here is a macaw; here is a goose. Even I admit that this interpretation is not a stretch. How often did a macaw appear in the markets of these people? Once in a lifetime? Every week? Was the bird memorialized for posterity like comets and other celestial outrages have been through recorded history? Or are the pictures art for art's sake, the outpouring of creativity hardwired into human beings before we could write.
If these folks had lived anywhere less harsh, we wouldn't be able to speculate and admire their pictures today.

This is also the land of ancient churches, formed of the earth, arched, curved, leaning this way, buttressed that. With reredos and emaciated saints gazing from deep set piercing painted eyes. The carved beams are black with age and the benches are narrow and hard. One church is surrounded by a low adobe wall, planted with a hedge of Russian sage. There are adobe wells beneath each of the six rain chutes. A two foot tall stalk of corn grows in singular splendor in a stone ring. The chapel is beautifully maintained and the altar retablos and santos in their niches beckon with medieval gestures. Another chapel has almost impossibly primitive wooden towers, but new construction and landscaping lead from the gravel parking area (with room for tour buses) to the church. A lovely mural graces the restrooms. One can buy lunch and gifts and crafts a short distance from the church. Inside, the black eyed saints still demand attention, respect for their age, and the palpable devotion of the visitors and worshippers alike. A traveler files through a room with discarded crutches and passes one where there is a hole of holy dirt. In Santa Fe, the oldest chapel, that of San Miguel, can only be accessed, in time honored fashion, by passage through the gift shop. The weathered exterior is surrounded by scaffolding and we gladly donate to continue its maintenance and renovation. These churches are silent during our visits. Most request no photography, though no signs to that effect are visible at San Miguel. The loneliest chapel we visit is in a village on the high road to Taos. The late afternoon mountain sky is full of clouds and darkens the facade of the locked building. Weeds are growing beneath one tower through the adobe and the effects of age and weather are brutally obvious. This church dates from the 18th century, and while it is the most evocative of the landscapes, it is a sobering reminder of how much money and labor it takes to keep the lovely old structures in use. This is not just history, because history is part of the past. These churches are living like a giant oak or redwood is still living, even though the world of their youth is almost unimaginable to us moderns.

The Southwest evokes these emotions from visitors routinely. We react to the unadorned landscape, the scarcity of vegetation, the clarity of light, the way even our human structures here seem to grow directly from the soil itself. It attracts artists, there's no doubt, whether attracted by the physical attributes or the metaphysical. Sometimes music just comes out of the air and your toe taps to unheard songs; in New Mexico, the beauty is so close to the surface, but so deeply rooted, that it grows on the rocks.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

not one thousand, just one night.

Just call me Scheherazade. I'm sitting on the tile patio of a fanciful New Mexico inn with a glass of red wine, green chile salsa and blue tortilla chips. There are farolitos on the roof ledge and the window frames are painted Santa Fe turquoise. Just behind me is a romantic wrought iron gate leading to a courtyard with, of course, a fountain, a swing, and more flower pots and blue doors. There is a second floor to this inn, lending it an even more protected air.

Our room has been designed by the Arabian nights....there is more tile and mosaic than I have ever seen before. There is a curtained skylight and and an embroidered coverlet to the bed that could have employed a dozen seamstresses. Carved columns at least pretend to hold up the beamed ceiling.

We spent this afternoon wandering hither and yon along the narrow streets of Santa Fe. The crowd is a hodge podge of punks, families and would be beautiful people. At least we imagine them to be beautiful people. We watch them trying on designer leather and window shop the dozens of jewelry stores. We are shameless about strolling the galleries of art that we like, pretending we could find a home for a 3/4 size bronze buffalo in the front yard or Remington wannabe bronze in our entry way. Blake would look great in a big hat and I could luxuriate in a leather jacket and silver and jasper bracelets.

I have a couple of goals for this trip. We have been blessed with warm, sunny days with beautiful Western light. Task one, already accomplished. I have visited San Felipe de Neri in Old Town of Albuquerque, San Miguel in Santa Fe and hope to see several more lovely mission churches before we leave. In Old Town yesterday afternoon, I was irresistibly drawn to a black and white photograph of a white cross and a weathered white church in Golden, New Mexico. That churchyard is on for tomorrow; I need to find it. Georgia O'Keefe painted the churches of New Mexico, and therein lies my third goal: visiting her museum up here in Santa Fe.

This has nothing to do with my real life. It has everything to do with the life of the mind, with imagination, with stepping into this other place with my closest companion and having these days to unwrap later on together.

Hmmm..I will fulfill one familiar task tomorrow. I'll still make a little cute pot of coffee in our elegant room. There are even real pottery cups (turquoise, of course). We'll shower in that amazing bathroom with the mosaic birds and flowers in the shower stall. We'll have someone fix us breakfast and then visit some museums and take some more pictures of odd looking people and walk alot and bask in the sun, shadows, and mountain views. I have my eye on a pottery shop with interesting plates, but I REALLY want to visit the shop with little cowgirl and cowboy vests and skirts. Don't know what I can fit in my luggage.

I may have to be a magician yet.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Endeavor to persevere

Ah, now back to work. I can safely say this has been one of the most frustrating summers I can remember for the work we do: the care, feeding, growing, selling and delivering of fall flowers like mums and asters. In past years, we've battled bugs: beetles making shredded wheat of hibiscus blooms, grasshoppers leaving naught but the steeliest of stems, a dizzying array of caterpillars that would work their way from beneath the ground cloth or hatch within the crown or crawl out from under the leaves. All these creatures had as a goal the destruction of our ornamentals, our summer crops. Wait a minute, I know, I know, these are not competitive intelligences. It is irresponsible and erroneous for me to anthropomorphize bugs. But, to paraphrase Jim Croce, 'that's not the way it feels'.

We've had droughts, windstorms, floods, summers that were cool and encouraged
the mums to bloom too early, summers with weeks of hot nights that delayed mum bloom til frost, early frosts, too, come to think of it. Compared to hybrid seed corn or soybeans, a mum is a fragile fainting thing, subject to fungus and bug. A mum will root from nearly nothing and grow from 3 leaves to fill a two gallon pot in a mere two months. But, like bunnies, or baby turtles, it doesn't take much to screw things up.

And this summer, instead of acres of lovely uniform pots budding, we have....rows with no plants because they cooked and rotted in July before they put on any growth at all. We have one variety with more yellow leaves than it should have. We have mums that are going to bloom late. We have varieties we didn't order that are clearly not suited for our daylength and temperature regime. We didn't get varieties that we know size up and bloom in a timely fashion in our part of the Midwest. It hasn't been fun.

But....we have worked. We've fertilized, sprayed, laid off the water and nursed til we're purple. Maybe some of our labor has paid off: after all, you can never prove a negative. If we hadn't taken these measures, perhaps they all would have died. We don't know.
I'm not used to futile efforts. That's one of the great things about growing for a job: you can see, measure, count your results. Plants get dry; you water; they revive. Five weeks after you transplant a little impatiens plug, you have a lovely carpet of bloom in the flat. It is tremendously satisfying to see a bay in the greenhouse transform from the color of peat to the colors of the rainbow. That's what we usually get for our work. That's not the end of it, obviously, but its a good start.

So the results of our labor this summer have led me to question the value of my work. I get up in the morning and I don't like what I see. I don't know that my efforts are bearing fruit. Sometimes I think I may be making matters worse. I wonder why I am doing what I am doing at all, and, worse yet, whether this job is a useful task that has God's blessing. Is this some kind of not so subtle message? Am I just particularly slow to take the hint?

Never fear, says the last issue of World magazine. In the nick of time as far as my attitude goes, there is wisdom straight from above regarding work.

One of the gifts of the Reformation is the adaptation of the word "vocation" to daily life. No longer did the concept of a vocation apply to the work within the sacred walls of abbey or chapel. Now each and every believer could be certain that his daily tasks, whether indoors or out, artisan or peasant, cleric or king or midwife or child, were intended, by God, for the glory of God. Ours not to judge the results; our task to supply the effort. Work may be interpreted by some to be a result of the Fall; no, Man was given the Garden to care for, the beasts and birds to care for. Husbandry and agriculture were gifts to us all; the Fall and expulsion from the perfect world left us to deal with disease, hail, drought, aches, pains and age. We weren't born to be ornamental. We were born to get out in the world, being "in it" if not "of it" and to make it better if we could. Congratulations and reward were never guaranteed; but believing that we are working His will when we work makes it possible to rest at night.

When we work with this attitude, we can be free of envy, preoccupation with remuneration, and discouragement when we fail in any of the myriad ways it is possible to imagine in the working world. We don't have to worry about the relative reimbursements of "working" moms and "stay at home" moms. We forget about comparing apples and oranges. We cease to struggle with our occupation while never ceasing to strive. We thank God for hands, heart, mind and the ability to use them each day to win our daily bread. Whether we work for our family, our parents, our church, our school, our country or because we are driven to a goal only we see, the bottom line is the same.

So, I guess I can think of this unpleasant summer, not as unproductive, but as another object lesson. There is room for improvement. Sometimes it doesn't get better. But there is still next year, God willing, whether you're the Cardinals or the folks growing and selling flowers at Hurst Greenery.

By the way, how many of you remember the quote in the title? Its from 'The Outlaw Josey Wales' and one of the top two I remember from the 1976 show. After looking it up, there are far too many to list here. The other quote is also from Lone Watie (Chief Dan George). " I didn't surrender. But they took my horse and made him surrender..."