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

 

The rain that never came

The heat ushered itself in early this summer, floating in on puffs of dry air and climbing down on sun rays from the sky.  It rested on tree tops and sank into the earth.  It completely made itself at home.

It was summer, so this was right, and things were just as they should be.  Except…

Except the rain never came.  The summer is meant to be a delicate balance between the heat and the rain.  The heat, the rain.  Heat, then rain again.  It is this way that the crops grow.  The summer heat had arrived, but the summer rains…had not.

So the crops waited.  Two weeks…three weeks…four.  The sun-baked earth dried up around their feet.  The crops began to cry out for rain.  The newly-planted cherry trees stretched their roots deeper into the soil, fingers trembling desperately to find water.  If it would not fall from the sky, perhaps it would rise from the ground.  But the ground had been baked in the heat for so long, it had given all that it could give.  The corn plants were also reaching deeply with their roots – and also, finding nothing.  The sun was almost beginning to feel painful.  So the corn curled up inside itself – the stalks became thinner and the leaves more brittle.

Then one night the air grew heavy.  The sky had been a restless gray all day.  The air was so thick it could be felt against the skin and the sky shook with thunder.  The corn turned its drooping leaves upward towards lightning-shorn clouds and thrilled with expectation.  Surely, surely, now the rain would come.

…and it did, pattering quietly down onto the leaves, dripping down their sides like tears of joy.  But then, suddenly, it stopped.  It stopped before the rain ever had a chance to reach the roots.  The plants sighed and bowed their heads, curling back up into themselves.  The rain had played a cruel joke on them.

Two more weeks passed by…July had melted stickily into August, the last real month of summer.  The leaves of the little trees began to turn yellow, and some of them, the least fortunate, gave a final breath and turned brown.  The corn plants in the field were stunted, limbs thin, stalks browning.  Still the heat.  Still the rain that never came.

Until today.  Today I take a walk out in the back hay field and slip into the woods.  The grass is wet from the heavy rain of last night.  Water drips from the trees and slides down bark darkened with rain.  A sparrow rests thoughtfully on the stem of a Queen Anne’s lace, bowing slightly in the breeze.  The corn and the little trees thrill to the damp and drink deeply.  The rain clouds still hang in the sky, subdued but not asleep.  A mist floats down from above, freckling my face and speckling my glasses….

and for this, like the fruit trees, like the corn, like the earth….

I am grateful.

Wind Song

Tonight the wind is sighing ’round the house.  It is whipping ’round the corners and tapping at the seams.  There is a weakness, there, at the front door.  The wind climbs the steps and knocks.  The door whistles back a reply, a greeting fit for a meeting between old friends.

The wind twists around the trees.  Their branches rub together and begin to creak.  They are not accustomed to dancing.  But they thrill to it nonetheless.

The wind travels out to the barns, where it rattles the door and shakes hands with a loose piece of tin.  The tin beats out a rhythm against the side of an old calf crate.

The wind is eager tonight to travel where it will; to give voice to the voiceless.  As it sighs, doors whistle out tunes, trees hum as they dance, and pieces of loose tin try their hand at percussion.

Tonight I curl up in my chair and let the world sing me a song through the dark.

A special music –

a music that only the wind can bring.

Not so much anymore

It was a mid-March Kentucky day.  Mother Nature had been teetering with uncertainty (the chill of winter or the thaw of spring?), but today she was in the mood for spring.  The sun warmed the earth and the trees began to think of changing from brown to green.  And us?

We were doing what everyone does when winter melts away and spring comes skipping in – forsaking the indoors for the out.  Hiking leisurely past Cumberland Falls and down along the river, stopping to sit on a huge boulder and watch the water here, wandering off to investigate a little cave there.  There were several of us, volunteers from different roots, mixing here, splitting there, talking, laughing, enjoying a companionable silence.

As the hike came to a close, I found myself betwixt Sam; thin-limbed and eyes wide in expectation (because life is a funny, wonder-filled thing and who wants to miss any of it?), and Janean; smile wide and heart filled to the brim (with McCreary County, with thoughts of beautiful souls already met and beautiful souls still to meet, with an appreciation for this moment, here.  Right now.).

We walked three abreast down the path toward the falls, trees shading our steps and spring joy settling into our bones.  Sam suddenly turned and waved to someone down the hill.

Janean peered down the slope.  “Is that one of our people?”

Sam turned, eyes smiling behind his glasses.  “No.  Just a stranger.  But not so much anymore.”

Janean and I grinned, because we both know how wonderful it can be when a stranger loses a little bit of their stranger-ness.  We’d seen how it works many a time.  And many of those times were right here, on Kentucky soil, working with the Christian Appalachian Project.  That’s what we were all here for really – to help out repairing homes for Workfest.  The very next day found us out of the forest and sitting in rows of chairs at Camp AJ, watching college kids get oriented to their surroundings.  They had rolled in from several different colleges in several different states.  They didn’t know each other, but soon that would change.

Soon they would all be standing awkwardly in a circle in front of a house tucked in between Kentucky hills.  They would be handed safety glasses and hammers and shovels and drills.  They would exchange stories between pounding nails into siding and digging trenches for underpinning.  They would eat lunch on the floor in a circle, while the homeowner’s grandchildren bounced around the outskirts, looking for someone to throw a ball for them.  They would develop skills with saws and formulate inside jokes.  They would gather together in prayer.  They would take advice from Jay, the 80-year-old crew leader with a gruff voice and a compassionate heart who’s been volunteering at Workfest for years.  They would learn about service, about community, about living, about love.

And then, at the end of the week, they would say good-bye.  They would say good-bye to Sarah, the nursing student from Chicago…to Joe, the pysch major from New York…to Elizabeth, the farm girl from Michigan…to Jay, the retired military man from Georgia…to Michael, the campus minister from Indiana…to Viv, the future pediatrician from Nebraska.  They would hug all of these, their crew members, and exchange last minute laughs before waving good-bye and climbing into their college vans.  They would head home with a bittersweet taste in their mouths, knowing it was likely that they would never see the people they worked with this week again.

Because, after all, they are just strangers.

Although…

…not so much anymore.

 

Wandering through cold moonlight

He startled me.  I saw him wandering through cold moonlight, right where he shouldn’t have been.

The rooster, Napoleon, black and white speckled feathers ruffled, dried blood smeared across his head, limped through the snow outside the window.  The sun had fallen from the sky long before.  He should have been roosting, sleeping peacefully at his usual spot on top of the fence.

But he wasn’t.  Tiny Tim – the other rooster – was.

Napoleon had been the boss of the chickens for his entire life.  He had started when he was young and not yet fully grown, ruthlessly attacking Mr. Chicken, the only other rooster who could challenge him in physical size.  Mr. Chicken didn’t know how to fight – he went for the tail.  Napoleon, now; he was born fighting – he went for the head.  So Mr. Chicken ran away in defeat, breathing heavily and dripping blood.  We separated them then, and watched as boundaries were laid.

Tiny Tim was the next to be routed.  The smallest of the roosters, he knew that he didn’t have a chance.  So, he hung around Napoleon and let himself be bossed.  Napoleon decided what to do and where to go.  He decided when to crow and when not to crow.  If Tiny Tim went against the rules, Napoleon put him in his place.  Tiny Tim had the brains, sure, but Napoleon had the brawn.  He was the boss.  And that was the way he liked it.

Until this night…when Tiny Tim, who Napoleon had lorded it over his whole life, won a fight for the first time.  For the first time, Napoleon was defeated, and badly.  Wounded, throne taken, he could only go into hiding.

This was why he was wandering in the dark, through the cold moonlight.  His head ached and he limped on a bum leg in the snow that bit at his feet, looking for a new place to roost.  He hurt all over, but what hurt the most…

was his pride.

Sometimes there is no ache greater than the sting of defeat.

(Note:  Well, it’s terribly out of order, but I suppose this blog post could also be entitled “Adventures of an Amateur Chicken Farmer, Part 2″).

Swallowed in Indifference

This has been a year of rentals.  Country rentals well outside of town…houses with stories to tell and no one to tell them to.  Houses that were once full of pride, but now slump down into the ground, worn and tired from misuse.

Their occupants left the house not at all like they found it.  They left it with broken window panes, with holes in the walls, with “FU” carved into the window trim, with a pile of garbage that had been accumulating for months in the backyard, with walls so filthy that their children had drawn pictures in the dirt on the wall.

Standing in their doorways, wandering their halls, I am always weighed down by an anger and a sadness.  Anger, because the occupants have shown little respect for anything and little concern for anyone but themselves (Why deal with your own filth and refuse when you could leave it behind you for someone else to take care of?).  Sadness, because I can often see what the house once was…a home that its owners were proud of.

I have always liked the history of things and the people behind them…many of whom have passed long ago.  This, my father taught me.  It was he who pointed out the numbers etched into the barn cement and shared with me what he knew of the history of our farm before he owned it.  It was he who pointed out the work that would have gone into building this porch or that hay wagon (“See?  Someone built this themselves.  Someone welded all these pieces together.  They put a lot of work into this.”)  He taught me to respect the land and the buildings that call it home…and the people who built them who I will never meet.  He taught me to recognize that every place has a story, and that I am just one short chapter in it.

So I suppose that is why, when I look at a house, I see not only what it is, but what it used to be.  There are little details in many of the rental houses that let me see that someone was once proud of this house…that they poured a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into it…that they loved it.  And so, when I go into a house and see that it has been treated with complete indifference where it was once treated with love, I am sad.

The Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said that “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”  Not caring leads to, and spreads, many of the world’s greatest troubles.  And indifference is something that is inside all of us…there are some who can say that they harbor no hate in their hearts, but who can say that they harbor no indifference?  No one.

And perhaps that is why the rentals sadden me so…

because I see in them yet another piece of love that has been taken away and swallowed in indifference.

It’s good to be a farm girl.

I slipped on my shoes and headed out the door.  The sky was beginning to darken, but the light wasn’t completely gone.  The world was hanging by a thread, deciding between day and night.  It’s a good time for a short walk…and, if you’re a chicken, a good time to roost.

I headed up to the chicken coop, a little tar-papered house standing tall next to the barn.  The roosters were already at their respective perches:  Napoleon, sitting on the fence under the tin roof of the lean-to; Tiny Tim, sitting on top of the hens’ outdoor fence.

“Hello, boys!  Time for sleeping, is it?” I climbed the steps up to the coop and opened the door.  I stepped inside, pulling the door partly shut (I never pull it completely shut anymore because once upon a time I locked myself in the chicken coop…but that’s a story for another day).

“Hello girls!”  The hens were roosting inside the coop, all in a row.  They turned their heads as I entered.  “Who’s this?  Who’s this?”  They shifted their weight and moved closer together.

I shut their chicken door, locking out the outside and any nocturnal stranger who might decide that a chicken dinner sounds appetizing.  The darkness was deepening.  I turned to the nesting boxes and stuck my hand down into the straw, feeling for an egg, or preferably, three eggs (as there are three hens).

“No eggs!  Girls!  Where are the eggies?!”  I turned around and shook my head at the hens.  I reached down and gave each of them a pat along the smooth feathers of their back.

They clucked with each pat.  “What?  What?  No touching!  No touching! Time for sleeping!  Time for sleeping!”

I stepped out of the coop and left the girls to their slumber party. Beatrice, a little orange and white cat, was waiting for me outside the door, rolling around in the grass.  She hopped up as I reached down to pet her, then followed me on my way back to the house.

The night was coming on.  Autumn leaves were crunching under my feet.  The air was fresh.  The cattle were grazing in the field next to me.  A little cat was on my heels and the roosters clucked a “Goodnight!”

It’s good to be a farm girl.

The wind is changing.

The birds have been restless lately.

A flock of black birds fly up from the corn crib, then rest on the hay pile, then jump up and land in the pasture.  I can almost feel the air from their frantically flapping wings as they swing over my head.

A buzzard flies over the orchard, wings outstretched, riding the wind.  He sails high above the trees.  A crow takes to the air below him, lamenting that the delicious apples he has been eating are being stripped from the trees.  No more free meal here.

A line of geese in standard V formation fly over my head as I pick up another box full of apples.  I stop to watch how the group falters and breaks rank, then comes back together.  They cry a unifying call from the sky: “Southward!”

There was a chill in the air today that had not been there before.

The wind is changing.

The birds can feel it.

Autumn is here.

A Ray of Sunshine

It had been a cloudy day, heavy with the anticipation of rain.  The sky was gray and the clouds were thick.  But every now and then, a ray of sunshine would break through.

I saw a particularly special one from my dining room window.  The sun worked its way through a small break in the clouds and shown down on the earth in some far away place like a heavenly spotlight.  It looked a lot like a spotlight actually…like when the superhero in the movies has just saved the day and steps forward into a ray of light that just so happens to be on him and only him.  It was beautiful…and it made me wish that I was in it, that ray of sunshine.  But it wasn’t there to shine on me.  It could be shining on several different scenes I suppose….

…an old man sitting on his porch, white beard and smile wrinkles around his eyes.  He sighs as he gazes up at the sky.  It has been a long, gloomy day.  He rubs his bum leg.  It aches where he injured it in the war.  It used to ache only every once in a while, but lately, it has been aching almost every day.  He can’t help but feel glum…but then, the sun breaks through the clouds like a welcome friend.  He tilts his head back and feels the warmth on his skin…and suddenly, he smiles.

Or…

…a woman sitting on a bench outside the hospital.  Her husband lays on one of the beds inside, recovering from a stroke.  She came out here for some fresh air.  She is tired…tired from staying up late, worrying about what’s next…tired of driving to and from the hospital every day…tired of seeing her husband suffer…tired of things not being the way they’re supposed to be.  She blinks back tears and lays her head in her hands.  God, where are You? Amidst her silent prayer, she feels a change in the air and looks up.  There, breaking through the clouds, is the sun.  A single ray, thin, but strong.  And it’s resting on her.  She feels some of the weight lift from her shoulders…and suddenly, she knows…everything is going to be okay.

Or…

…a little boy with straw blonde hair and some stickiness from the cherry popsicle he just ate on his fingers.  His t-shirt is blue and he has tied an old, worn-out, red blanket around his neck.  His favorite super hero is the one, the only, Superman!  He runs around the yard, blanket cape flapping behind him.  Suddenly the sun breaks through the clouds and rests on his shoulders.  He stops running.  He places his fists on his hips and stands proudly, chest puffed out, sun glowing in his hair.  In that moment, he isn’t just pretending to be Superman…he IS Superman.

…but of course, there is no way for me to discover just where that ray of sunshine is really resting.  By the time I set out on my quest, it would be gone, its intended blessings already bestowed.

So I go back to my dinner of meatloaf and mashed potatoes and let the ray of sunshine settle in the back of my mind.

(Note:  Ooops!  I missed Day 5 of my Beauty in Every Day Project!  But, have no fear friends, this happened on October 5th, I promise.  So, it counts, right?)