Porch Sittin’

My porch is built of cement and rocks pulled from the farm fields.  With the shade from the trees in the front yard and the breeze that sails over the hill, it’s a perfect spot on a hot summer day.  So today I made it my home, sitting in a pair of white wooden rockers – one for my rump and one for my feet, a bit of classic literature in my lap.    It was definitely a good day to practice the art of porch sittin’.

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I never really thought about the art of porch sitting until I went to Kentucky – where porch-sittin’ became a common verb.  Definition: A good place and time to take a break and have a chat,  preferably in the morning right before the work day begins – or maybe on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

Porch sittin’ is well practiced at Camp AJ, where Miss. Connie sits with a mug of coffee in the off season, ready to have a good gossip with the year-round camp staff; or in the summer when handfuls of happily exhausted counselors lounge about on the lodge porch.  They sit amongst the piles of drying clothes hanging wherever there’s a space and eat bowls of cereal while the inevitable stray cat or dog sits at their feet, waiting for them to drop something.  They make friendship bracelets and talk about everything under the sun.  The porch is Where It’s At.

The good people of Kentucky taught me that porch sittin’ doesn’t always have to happen on a porch, either.  It’s the spirit of the thing that counts.  Sometimes it can happen in an office, munching on Op-Share chocolate and tortilla chips and shooting the bull with whoever happens to be around.

The first time I came to Kentucky, I didn’t really understand this strange southern habit.  If you were to sift through my old blogs all the way back to when I first arrived in that foreign clime, you will find musings like “…they always say that they’re busy – but they never really seem to be that busy…” (referring to the fact that, no matter how much they have on their agenda, it doesn’t seem to bother them at all to take an hour or so out of their work day just to chat).  My northern self didn’t get it.  I would sit during some chit-chat sessions in frustration, thinking about how much work I could be getting done right then.

Fast forward four years to a new Kentucky stint.   If my work day started without a porch sittin’ (er…office sittin’) session, I couldn’t help feeling like I was getting gypped – like the day had lost an important bit of flavor.  The porch at Camp AJ was a necessary hangout on the weekends during camp and Workfest, and if I didn’t spend a goodly amount of time there I knew I was going to be missing out.  Whenever I drove by a house and saw people sitting on their porch I saluted them with a jubilant proclamation of “PORCH SITTIN’!” spoken in a sing-songy voice.  In short, it took a while, but this northern girl officially embraced the southern art of porch sitting.

Of course, we have porches up north, too.  And we know how to use ’em.  This Michigan porch now – this handmade stone beauty with the rockers and the swing and the sailing breeze and the gorgeous view – I grew up with this porch.

The wall that faces the pasture was my rock climbing wall.  I would find the rocks with the best grip holds for little fingers and toes and would scale the side of the wall, scratching up my arms as I pulled myself across the top.  My older self sometimes gets the urge to porch-rock climb again, but (Sigh) I’m too tall now for it to be anywhere near as much fun.

The porch wall that faces the beech tree was a center of competition.  A leaping competition.  A who-can-leap-the-farthest-and-grab-the-most-beech-nuts-off-the-beech-tree competition.  The competitors:  Me and my brothers.  The challenge?  Stand on top of the porch wall, leap over the bushes, grab the branches of the beech tree on the way down, land gracefully (or not-so-gracefully) and count out how many beech nuts we managed to strip from the tree.  The prizes?  A handful of beech nuts to be picked apart and bragged over.     Yup.  Porches weren’t just for sitting.  They were also for adventuring.

But there was plenty of sitting, too.  I spent many summer days sitting on the porch swing, listening to whatever CD I happened to have in my Walkman.  I would swing as high as the swing would go until my head knocked up against the porch roof – that was when I knew it was time to slow down.  Porch swings, however, are not made to be swung that vigorously on a regular basis, as I quickly learned on the day that one of the bolts gave out and the swing flung me across the porch.  I landed on my side on the cement, my CD player still clutched in my hands.

My mom ran to the door. “Elizabeth?  Are you okay?!”

Stunned, I could only say “I………….don’t…………know.”  (For the record books, while a little beat up, I was, in fact, okay).

There was also plenty of the more traditional, southern-style porch sitting.  Days when my Grandpa and Grandma would drive up with a bag of papers and sit and chat with us on the porch about this, that, and the other thing.  If I wasn’t around, but my barn boots were, Grandpa would slip a ball of paper down into the toe as a signal to me that he had been there (and for the sake of the laugh that I know he got out of imagining my face when I put on my boot, felt something weird, and said to myself “What the heck?”).  Of course, they could have come in the house.  But why sit in the house when they could sit on this porch – one of the best porches around for miles?

I never really realized it when I was a kid, but now, as an adult, I have to say:  those Kentucky folks are right – taking a little time out of the day for a bit of porch sittin’ is good for the soul.

So today, I porch sit.

And I recognize it for what it is –

a beautiful thing.

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The Tower of Babel

The early morning sunlight was busy burning off the dew as I adjusted my cushion on the asparagus rider.  The asparagus rider sits low – just above the ground – with foot pegs sticking out in front positioned so that the pickers can snap the asparagus spears from the ground in between their legs.  The platform where I placed my cushion has just enough room for two pickers and a few piles of asparagus boxes (both empty and full).  I settled my scuffed sky blue tennis shoes onto the foot pegs and positioned a bright pink plastic box at the ready next to me.

The asparagus field unrolled in front of me; a sea of sandy soil sprouting rows of green spears.  The asparagus was growing at various heights (some at the magical 6-8 inches (perfect for spears), some a bit too tall and in need of shortening, some a bit too short and in need of more time to mature) and in various population densities (a large cluster here, a small gathering there, a lone wolf skirting the edge).

The asparagus rider was going to be home to five pickers for the duration of the day.  To my left is Vincente, an 82-year-old who can work just as fast as some men half his age.  The sharp outline of his chin and eyes hidden by sunglasses make him look harsh until he smiles a “Good Morning” – two of the few English words he knows.  To my right is Javier, the driver, five-foot-nothing and the only one who speaks English with any fluency or comfort.  He lays his asparagus spears neatly into his boxes with the calm experience of many years of picking and bursts out into song:  “Que bonita!  Que bonita!”  On the opposite side of the rider are the dynamic duo:  Gabriela and Santiago.  Husband and wife; steady, reliable workers who never miss a beat.  They laugh and joke with Javier in a babble of Spanish words.

And then there’s me: the outsider.  The farmer’s granddaughter whose Spanish only extends to three years of classes in high school.  The girl who has never been to Mexico or Texas and never known what it means to move from place to place.  The girl who has never before picked asparagus.

As the rider moves forward, the sound of the engine thrumming in the air blends with Spanish words and the snapping of asparagus spears from their base.  It is tricky to keep up with these seasoned workers.  I find that I can not help comparing myself to Vincente (am I at least picking as fast as the man old enough to be a great grandfather?) and to Javier (am I picking the spears the right length or are they too long?  What does his box look like?).   I do fine in the less populated areas of the field, but when we get to the large clusters, I find myself in over my head.  My fingers rush to pick spears and shorten them at the same time, only to find that both of my fists are filled with asparagus and more is on the way.  I dump them on the board next to my cushion and refill my fists.  I will have to shorten and organize them later into my box when I have time.  I do not have time now.  And the only time that I will have will be when I get to the end of the row and Javier has to turn the rider around.

As the day wears on, the constant bending over to pick up the spears begins to take its toll even on my young back.  I try to stretch at the turn-arounds (if I don’t have a pile of spears to sort out) or to briefly reposition my legs to give my back a break.  As the day wears on, the lack of ability to communicate with the people next to me also begins to take its toll.  I sit in silence as they pass around Spanish words.  I pick up on a few:  “Flaca” (“Skinny” – I smother a smile when I realize that when Gabriela uses this, she is referring to me); “Espalda” (“Back” – Javier stretches his against the front bar on the rider during breaks while Santiago scratches his against the tire); “Camisa” (“Shirt” – as the temperature rises, Vincente removes one of his layers); but most of it remains a mystery.  An alien music falling on timid ears.

I begin to have a better appreciation for what happened at the Tower of Babel.  I guess God knew what He was doing there.  What better way to create divisions between people than to make it so that they can’t talk to each other?  I can feel the division here, in this field, as I sit in silence while they share stories with each other that are impossible for me to understand.  I would like to hear their stories, probably very different from my own, but I am uneasy.

Uneasy about making them uncomfortable – like on the first day when I met Gabriela and asked her how long she had been working for my Grandma.  She had gotten an “Ummm…not sure what to do here” look on her face and laughed.  I just said “Okay” and laughed right along with her.  My mistake.

Uneasy about making myself uncomfortable – I rack my brain for those Spanish words that I learned so long ago, but find that the ability to make sentences has escaped me.  And besides, I am like Gabriela – even when I know the words, they feel strange in my mouth and I am nervous to use them because I know that they will mark me as an outsider.  No hablo espanol.

So I maintain my silence and let the divide stay there.

Experience that can be measured in years and experience that can be measured in hours.

Workers and Granddaughter.

Hispanics and Anglo.

Spanish and English.

I let the divisions stay.

Not because I want it that way – not because it’s better that way-

but because it’s easier that way.

How very human of me.

Just in case you’ve never seen an asparagus rider – here’s a video to show you what it looks like, in my county (the asparagus capital of the world!) nonetheless!