It was beautiful.

I slipped out the door after the rain to lock up the chickens for the night and collect the eggs.  Wet grass congregated around my rubber boots and puddles contemplated the shortness of life in the driveway.  The world was in a state of half-darkness, the time when chickens start to think of roosting and humans start to think of sleeping.   This year’s kittens gathered around me as I made my way past the barn, each clamoring for a pet…a clump of orange, white, calico, and rust-tinged tiger stripes purring at my feet.

…but the darkness was settling in fast and I had eggs to collect, so I only stopped for a moment before climbing up the hill to the coop.  The chickens were in their usual place, perched all in a row.  The eggs were nestled in the straw.  I closed up the coop, scooped up the eggs and started to walk back to the house.

…but when I came to the driveway, I stopped.  There in the sky ahead of me was a storm cloud…white and gray with a tinge of rose left over from the sun that was hiding below the edge of the earth.  The cloud flickered and swelled with light….veiled but still bright here, showing the curved outlines of the cloud there…breaking out in a thin and jagged line of lightning here.  The remnant of the storm, hanging in the sky, silently mixing dark with light, peace with foreboding, color with blackness.

I stood there, an insignificant bit of humanity under a terribly large sky, disheveled end-of-the-day braids hanging down my back, the outline of a pair of newly-laid eggs resting at the bottom of my pants pockets pressing against my legs, and watched a cloud filled with gray and rose, light and darkness.

It was beautiful.

 

 

 

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A Temporary Truce

It is raining.  A hose is broken on the shaker, so work is at a stand still, despite the plump red-ripe cherries hanging readily from the branches of the trees in the orchard.

I sit in my protective box of a tractor while the rain edges closer and closer, eating away at the sides of the cab like a child slowly nibbling away at the sides of a doughnut.  The tractor cab is unfortunately not the fortress that it was in its younger years.  It fell prey to a careless driver – a large man with a penchant for driving fast with windows and doors propped open to let in the air.

One day he flipped it over a guard rail, spray rig and all.  Crack!  Smash!  The tractor tumbled and landed aching in the ditch.   One day it was the back window, improperly propped.  Smash!  Shards of glass.  The tractor sighed.  Another day it was the doors.  A too sharp turn.  A long-limbed tree.  Smash!  Shards of glass.  The tractor shivered and shook.  Now only one bit of glass remains:  the front window.  The last man standing in a long drawn out weary-to-the-bones battle.  My only defense from the rain.

So I sit.  I can hear the forklift in the background, running around the cooling pad like a chicken that has discovered a worm.  Mine!  Mine!  Mine!  Beep!  Beep!  Beep!  It is picking up tanks full of cherries and placing them on the pad to be cooled with water flowing icily from the well.  Once cooled, they will be taken to the processor.  The little forklift is hard at work.

But I –

am waiting, whilst rain patters on the roof of a worn-down tractor I do not much care for, but have been assigned to drive nonetheless.  It is a tractor with forks on the back meant to drop off empty cherry tanks and pick up full ones.  It is a tractor that I do not trust on the orchard hills.  With each hill I find myself tensing, my body willing the tractor to do what I want it do by physically doing the action myself.

Climbing a steep hill?  My feet straighten and press against the floorboards and my hands push at the wheel.  Come on tractor!  No stalling!  No wheelies!  We’re almost to the top! Keep going!  Keep going!

Navigating a side hill?  As the tractor tilts to the side, I lean the opposite way (as if skinny little me will greatly shift the weight of either a tractor or a tank full of water and cherries).  I lean with all my will.  Stay on all fours, tractor!  No sliding!  Just a little further now!  It’s flatter up there!  Keep moving!  Keep moving!

“I hate this tractor,”  I tell my brother as I lower my tractor forks down and release a full cherry tank on the ground next to the cooling pad.

“Everyone hates this tractor.”  He says it matter-of-factly, because, well, it is a matter of fact.

When I want the tractor to go into third gear, it protests in indignation and stalls out on me.  When I don’t want it to go into third gear, but accidentally put it into third instead of first, it roars and happily runs forward much faster than I had intended.  The forks drop ridiculously slowly as I back up to the tanks…except once in a while…when they decide to catch me off-guard and drop like a shot.  There are only two gears for reverse – Slow as a Sloth or Zoom-Zoom.  In short, this tractor is an aggravation.

….but at the moment, it is my friend, shielding me from the rain the best that it can in its crippled state.

We have temporarily declared a truce, this tractor and I…

just a couple of out of work co-workers, waiting.

More Than He Had To

“Isn’t that scary?”

Greg, white hair fringing his face, turned to look.  “What’s that?”

Jimbo, smiling crookedly, chin tilted in thought, his hands waving expressively through the early morning air, elaborated.

“What he said back there.  Think about it: if Father Beiting had been content to just do his job and nothing else, none of us would be here! I would never have met you!  Or Elizabeth!”

“That’s true.” Greg nodded slowly. ” Life would be very different.”

We were climbing the blacktopped hill from Camp Andrew Jackson’s Old Hickory (a multi-purpose room) to the dining hall after attending an early morning church service.  We were all from different places, all different ages, but we had come together once again for Workfest, the Christian Appalachian Project’s (CAP’s) alternative spring break program…a yearly event where volunteers gather together for a home repair blitz.

Jimbo’s ponderings had been inspired by the words of the sermon we had just heard, given by Father Jim from Montclair State University.  Father Jim, mindful of the place where he stood and the work we all were doing, had chosen to focus a portion of his sermon on Rev. Ralph W. Beiting – CAP’s founder.  He pointed out how Father Beiting, when asked to lead a parish in eastern Kentucky, could have done just that and nothing more…and there wouldn’t have been anything wrong with that – dutifully carrying out the duties of a country pastor with a small but faith-filled congregation.  But Father Beiting didn’t choose to just do his job – he chose to do more.

He was a pastor, he built churches, he preached the gospel in the streets…but he also took a good look around his community.  There in the beautiful hills of eastern Kentucky, he saw the wounds of poverty – homes badly in need of repair, limited job opportunities, adults and children in need of hope – and he felt God calling him to do something about it.  So he started the Christian Appalachian Project.  He started adult education programs.  He created job opportunities by starting a factory and a dairy farm.  He started thrift stores where people could buy clothes at affordable prices. He started preschools and summer camps.

And he knew he couldn’t do all this alone.  So he found volunteers to help him work.  He looked through the phone book and called up people randomly to ask if they would be willing to make donations.  When he felt that God was asking him to do something for the people of the mountains, he did it, even when it was hard and he faced opposition.  Some people are born with the wonderful ability to bring people together and get things done…and he was one of them.

Father Beiting died several years ago, but his work still lives on.  The Christian Appalachian Project has become one of the largest non-profit organizations in the region.  They repair homes, run thrift stores and food banks, preschools, summer camps, provide assistance to the elderly and more.  They get a lot of help from volunteers who come from all over the country to work and pray together.

I was one of those volunteers.  I first came to CAP in 2011.  I spent two and a half years of my life in the hills of southeastern Kentucky working with them…and have been back for at least a couple weeks every year since my first arrival.

So I suppose that’s why Jimbo’s words got me thinking…

Father Beiting not starting CAP…just doing his job…

it was a scary thought.

Never to have met Jimbo or Greg or Janean or Debbie or Clarence or Mike or Carrie or Anna or Nathaniel or Carlo or Priscilla or Larry and so, so many others…

Never to have helped David and Matthew with their reading, smiling at their sweetness.  Never to have played kickball dodgeball with the kids at the afterschool program (I’m pretty sure my glasses are still crooked from when Mike hit me in the face…).  Never to have explored the beauty of McCreary County with Kate and anyone else who decided to join us for a hike.  Never to have laughed with Nathaniel over making ridiculous summer camp awards.  Never to have blinked back tears of joy seeing the happiness in a camper’s eyes.  Never to have folded laundry with Carlo.  Never to have gone canoeing with Priscilla, singing hymns in the dark.  Never to have laughed at life with Clarence and Carrie in the office every morning.  Never to have sat and talked with Mary in the camper she was so tickled to have as a new home.  Never to have joked with Danny at the hardware store.  Never to have climbed to the top of Pretty House with Shelby and Anna, laughing as we went.  Never to have listened to God whisper in the wind at the top of the Pinnacles with Debbie.  Never to have had Larry explain how to build a wall, handing me a chocolate candy from his pocket as he talked.  Never to have sang around a campfire with a guitar-toting Janean.  Never to have experienced a lovingly awkward, face-smashing Jay hug.

Never to have come here for Workfest 2019.  Never to have taught two wonderful girls how to put up siding one day, and then sat back and watch them killing it on their own the next.  Never to have joked around with Heather while Fred the dog wandered around at our feet.  Never to have seen the incredible gratitude of the Smith family whose house we were working on – making us angel-shaped sugar cookies “because we were angels”, helping us hammer in tricky upside-down nails, pulling their little girl with the golden curls in a wagon around the yard.

Yes.

Without the Christian Appalachian Project, life would be very different…

and not just for me – for so many people who have been a part of it or touched by it over the years.  Lives irrevocably changed for the better…

and all because of one man who decided to do more than he had to.

Image result for father ralph w beiting

“For the first time, I ceased thinking of myself as the center of the universe.  God was.  He had the interest, the care, the longing.  I was entering into His world, assisting in His work.  He wanted a solution, a new beginning, more than I ever could.  All I needed to do was follow the path He was trodding. I thanked Him that night because I had found a Father, a Guide, a Protector, a real Friend, as well as a Redeemer. I didn’t know where we were going or how we were going to get there, but I knew that all I had to do was hold His hand and keep walking.”

– Father Ralph W. Beiting

 

David

Matthew sat on the scratched and scarred wood of his bedroom floor, tape dispenser gripped between his dimpled fingers.  There was no preschool today, so he had been left to his own devices.  He was still in his pajamas, which were just a tad bit too small for him, and his brown curls were tousled and leaning against his forehead. His face was screwed up in concentration, tongue hugging the corner of his mouth, as he busied himself with the task of decorating his bedroom door with copious amounts of the clear scotch tape he had found on the coffee table downstairs.

There was no one around to tell him to stop.  David would have, if he were home, but he was sitting at his elementary school desk several miles away.  Momma was asleep after a late night out with friends; and Matthew didn’t really know his father.  For him, the word “Dad” was attached to packages that showed up in the mail on Christmas and birthdays – and little else.  David remembered Matthew’s father, but Matthew didn’t.

David was Matthew’s brother – Matthew’s half-brother really.  He was small for his age and skinny, with mouse-colored hair and large blue eyes that, if he had been home, would have been quick to discover Matthew’s indiscretion and quick to correct it.  He was only seven, but he noticed things.

Momma, on the other hand, never noticed much.  Wrapped in her own little world, she moved from house to house, from boyfriend to boyfriend, from job to job.  She liked late nights and avoided early mornings.  She loved to sing, clear-throated and carefree.  When she was in a good mood, she would dance around the living room, grasping the boy’s hands and swinging them around the carpet.  David loved Momma – but he also knew that something was wrong somewhere, and he was troubled.

In the morning, Momma liked to sleep in, so it was David who would get himself and Matthew ready for school.  He would pull a stool up to the kitchen counter to get the cereal from the high shelves.  He would help Matthew get dressed and then hold his hand as they waited for the school bus.  Momma would be there when they got home, full of smiles, but when evening came, she often slipped away to be with friends.  So David would put Matthew to bed, first making sure that he scrubbed his face and hands with the blue washcloth that hung next to the sink and brushed his teeth with his red dinosaur toothbrush.  They shared a bedroom, so when the lights had been turned out and they had both climbed into bed, David would tell Matthew bedtime stories.  Some were stories that he had heard at school, and some were ones that he made up out of his own head.  Rocket ships and dragons…dogs that could talk and cowboys who rode horses into the sunset.  He told Matthew stories the same way that Matthew’s dad, Jason, used to tell him stories.

David had loved Jason.  Momma had met Jason at the repair shop where he had fixed her car.  He had a contagious laugh and hands that knew how to work.  He would get up early in the morning to help David onto the bus and would sit at his bedside and read books to him at night until he fell asleep.  When Matthew came along, Jason had wanted to marry Momma – asked her more than once, but she always said no, much to Grandma’s exasperation.  David had heard Momma and Grandma talking in the kitchen one day.

“Jenny, Jason is a real good man – the kind that’ll take care of you and the boys.”

“I know,” Momma had said, “but I don’t want to have a husband to worry about all the time.  The kids are enough of a burden as it is.”

David had gone to school the next day and asked his teacher to explain this mystery – this word “burden” – to him.  The answer had dropped a seed of worry in his stomach that never went away.

After a while, right around Matthew’s first birthday, Jason left, taking his laughter and his stories with him.  David cried bitterly for days until one sunny Sunday when Momma plunked her coffee cup down on the table in exasperation.

“David!  Would you stop crying?  Jason wasn’t your Daddy after all.”

David had swallowed his tears and left the room.  Momma poured the rest of her coffee down the sink and sighed, a twinge of guilt stirring in her stomach.  She knew how much David had liked Jason…but, well, Jason had just expected too much of her, that was all.  She wasn’t a “settle down” kind of girl.  She didn’t want that kind of life.  She loved David, in her way, but she didn’t understand him.  He was much too serious for a child.

So, from then on, whenever David missed Jason, he would swallow his tears until bedtime, when he would curl up on the floor of his closet to muffle the noise and sob brokenly.  No, Jason wasn’t his Daddy (David wouldn’t know his own Daddy if he passed him on the street), but he had loved him just the same.

It was a long time before a knock on the door or the ringing of the phone stopped bringing a leap of hope to David’s throat.  Surely, Jason would come back…but, after a few initial visits to little Matthew, he never did.  Jason had met someone new, someone who did not like constant reminders of another child from a woman who was not her.  And Jason did not like being reminded of what a fool he had been…so the visits stopped.  Jason knew he was wrong, but tried to sooth his guilt by sending child support and presents.  Nevertheless, there were times when Jason would get up in the middle of the night and sit at his kitchen table with his head in his hands, hating himself, because he knew he was a coward.

And David was left crying in the dark.  But he was determined that his little brother Matthew should not know these tears – that Matthew should not feel the ache of something missing – of something terribly wrong – that he did.  So he took care of Matthew the way that Jason had taken care of him, and tried to stop his anxieties from drifting into his laughter or the bedtime stories that he shared with Matthew at night.

So Matthew grew, knowing little of David’s struggles.  He was young…and merely knew that he loved David with his stories that created new worlds, and his Momma with the voice that filled his afternoons with song.  And he loved discovering new things – like this tape dispenser.  So, sleeping Momma below and David safe at school, he tore more and more tape from the dispenser and stuck it to the door.


Five years later, a girl with long dark braids picked bits of tape off of the bottom of a bedroom door in an empty rental and wondered who in the world would stick this much tape on their door and for what reason…


…Several miles away, in a new town, David and Matthew walked home from school.  Older, taller, David was still thin and his blue eyes were still just as serious and piercing.  He had changed though – the confusion behind his eyes and the worry in the pit of his stomach had grown into something new.  He no longer wondered what was missing or what was wrong; he understood things better now.  The confusion and the worry had been replaced with other things…things that did not belong in someone so young…anger…resentment…bitterness.  There was a certain dip in the eyebrows and a crease across the forehead that ought not to have been there.

And Matthew?

He still liked discovering new things, and his face still screwed up into a tongue-hugging twist when he was tackling a problem at school.  But there was no anger or resentment or burden of constant worry in his eyes.  Instead, there was always a quiet hope…

because he knew…

no matter what Momma was doing…

no matter how many houses he lived in…

no matter what new boyfriend might be knocking at the door…

he would always have…

David.

My stack of books at my feet

I have a slight headache tonight.  There is a song playing through my headphones on repeat…quiet words strummed across space.  The music reminds me of something…something that has been on my mind a lot over the past couple of weeks…something that I can not write about yet.

There is a stack of books at my feet.  I am starting a study in fiction this month.  Theme:  Christmas.  The pile is mostly kid’s books that I have had since grade school, anchored by the inevitable Dickens.  I pull them out every year, completely disregarding reading level or quality, the same way I pull out my Chipmunk Christmas cassette tape and my Christmas television specials…Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  It’s tradition, and I like tradition.  I hug tradition to my chest and let it dance me across the room.

Sing those old songs to me.  Raise my spirits and shake my November pains away. Heal wounds with love, soothe fear with faith, let sadness surrender to joy.

Here I am with my music on repeat, my stack of books at my feet.

Ready to begin.

 

 

 

Come, Halloween!

We spread the newspaper on the table, letting the ads for new cars mix with the letters to the editor and the article about the new low-income apartment complex in town.  A new tablecloth, thick with print that smudges our fingers.

Then we carry in the pumpkins; orange, plump, expectant.  They rest calmly on the newspaper, faces blank.  With the aid of a trusty carving knife, the pumpkins take off their hats.  We peer inside at the mixture of tangled orange tendrils and white tear-drop seeds.  Then in we plunge, hands grasping slimy squishy slippery pumpkin guts.  It’s hard to decide how to feel with the unusual sensation of pumpkin guts in the palm of our hands:  grossed out or strangely satisfied?  Once the hands have scooped out all they can, it’s time to call in the back-up:  a trusty spoon.  The spoons slide along the walls of the pumpkin, smoothing it into a more desirable texture.  Now the pumpkin is ready to hold a candle.

But it still needs a face.  So we find a pen and scrunch up our own  faces in thought.  What kind of eyes and what kind of nose?  The curve of a smile or the downward creep of a frown?  The outline of a face appears in shaky pen marks across the uneven surfaces of the pumpkins.  Then in plunges the carving knife.  The pumpkins take on a personality.  The plump round one cheerily grins despite missing teeth.  The tall thin one shows its fangs in a stay-away-from-me pose.  The biggest one stares oddly forward through square eyes.

Faceless no more, the pumpkins are ready for the most magical part.  Little candles are dropped inside and lit, and the dining room light switch is flicked off.  Faces flicker and glow through the darkness, pumpkins no more…

They are Jack ‘O Lanterns, fully prepared to greet the night.

Come, Halloween!  We’re ready for you.

 

A Taste of Fall

“The air tastes like fall today.”

(He said it like someone who knew what he was talking about.  Like someone who had captured all that is fall…the crispness of an autumn wind, colorful leaves curled and crunching under a pair of sneakers, the chill of football field bleachers beneath jean-clad legs, the soft creak of freshly picked apples squeezing together in the box as the picker leans over to empty her bag, the excitement of children choosing the perfect pumpkin, the taste of chocolate pulled from a Halloween treat bucket and peeled from a wrapper embossed with smiling bats, and the thrill of riding on the fender of a tractor while Dad picks a field of corn, brown and yielding sturdy dimpled yellow ears…ground it all into a seasoning and bottled it up.  Put it in all the local grocery stores – took it to farmer’s markets.  He would stand behind the table, smiling at the passersby. 

“Say, have you ever tasted fall?  Buy this seasoning, sprinkle it in your food, and you can taste it every day!” 

And they did taste it.  They tasted it sprinkled on their Sunday dinners and almost felt the cool breeze of early October as they sat in the sweltering heat of late July.  They tasted it mixed in with their early morning oatmeal in the cold bare grip of February, and remembered the beauty of the leaves before they fell off the trees.  They tasted it, and they loved it.  He sold it by the hundreds, by the thousands, then closed up shop.  It was time to retire.  So he took his secret recipe and tucked it away into a corner of his attic – only to be pulled out for family holidays and gatherings of special friends. 

Yes, he knew what he was talking about.  So he said it again.)

“The air tastes like fall today!”  He smiled and swept the sky with his hands.  “Yep, it tastes like fall.  And, man, is it good.”