Sunday, March 30, 2008

Until We Come Again

The lights turned off, the window shades drawn, we took one last look around the yard before starting the car. The sky was threatening rain again but we’ll have to wait and see. Ma’s pebble birdhouses still dangled from the front yard oak, the bluebonnets seemed to have grown a foot since our arrival, and the red bird swooped in to say farewell. One lone “moo” called from the distance. It was time. The dirt road crunched beneath the tires on our way to the front gate, and with a heaviness to match the air I swung the gate closed behind us and secured the padlock – its “click” I labeled a semi-colon rather than a period. We look forward to coming back.

The main road was quiet this Sunday morning; I’d like to believe everyone was in church. Depositing our accumulated trash, we pressed toward San Antonio, pausing in Floresville long enough to pick up some barbecue to go. I’ve learned that it pays, around airports, to travel prepared, and south Texas barbecue is almost enough to wish for long delays. Entering San Antonio we located the Guenther House, our predetermined lunch stop (food is becoming an unveiled consistent theme), but finding it overcrowded we ordered our chicken green enchiladas to go, pushed on to the airport and ate our lunch in the gate area. Travelers from all over the world tried to hide their envy. Lori peeled and cut up the last remaining mango and we feasted our dessert before subjecting ourselves to the grand inquisition known as “security screening.” Proof that there is a benevolent God, they didn’t even question our barbecue, only a knick-knack we had bought for a friend.

And now we pull out the books, plug in the iPods, steel ourselves for travel, and wait for the nod. These have been blessing days – the gentle embrace of rest and the braking deceleration of country life; the feathered caress of memories both decades old and months new; the nourishing grace of wildflowers, green leaves and open space, long walks in the pasture, and the animating chatter of birds. Blessing days, indeed. Waiting, now, at gate 35, the shift is so abrupt and complete, it’s hard to believe that Berclair is only short hours behind us…

…and, with good fortune, only short months ahead of us. In the meantime, I’ll keep praying for rain.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Memories in the Making

The day begins thick and heavy. Fog limits the view and dew, heavy enough to gather and drip occasionally from the roof, won’t likely be enough to moisten the fields but will at least service the wildflowers. In the few days we have been here, the roadsides and roughs have increasingly blued. They are crop enough…for the moment.

Yesterday smirked with the promise of rain, but like Lucy holding the football, the sky persistently reneged. We’ll see how today progresses. If the morning is any indication, it will be another stretch of daylight wet in spirit but dry in substance.

This is our last full day in Berclair for awhile. It’s too early to plan when the next one will be, but not too early to look forward to it. The 1500 miles or so between us make visiting hardly routine, but hopefully it won’t be another year. These days have been like wearing soft and comfortable old clothes that know where you bend and “give” where they need to. That very sentiment now strikes me as interesting. I’ve had something of an adulterous relationship with Berclair over the years – I’ve taken it for granted; disrespected it, I suppose, to dabble in “prettier,” “sexier” locales. After visiting here twice a year for the most formative years of my growing, when it was up to my own initiative I seldom took it. Maybe it was too close; too common; too hot when my vacation days were available. And, as I say, there were titillating alternatives. Now Berclair is, I suppose, the “sexy” alternative – far enough away to be alluring.

The result is that I have very old memories of these roads, these fields, these spirits that still gather on the front porches of my mind to laugh and tell stories, light firecrackers, spit watermelon seeds, hum a hymn or a folk song and page through photo albums; very old memories of honking the cows up to pet and tromping the fields and singing hymns in the old church. And I have very young memories from the last few years of reconnection and exploration and feckless striving to contribute something here instead of merely use; of in-troducing those old legacies to Lori and creating our own. But I remember almost nothing in between. Which, though odd in some ways and revealing much remedial I have still to learn, has some advantages, given some of the other turns those middle years ended up taking.

Meanwhile, we are here for one more day; smiling; gratefully relaxed; eagerly curious and attentive enough to notice the hawk swooping overhead and the buzzards circling in the distance and the cacophony of birds calling from the trees and the faint “moo” in the distance and the still, mirroring water in the tank across the pasture and the bluebonnets blooming and the coyotes howling and relative prospects of the dewy fog…

…and every redbird that drops down to perch on the fence…
…or the low branch…
…or the dusty rain gauge.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Adopted by Orphaned Land

We walked the fence line – my first time ever. Throughout the years of my paying attention, the brush has been too thick for all but the intrepid, and I have seldom fit that description. But I’ve always been curious, and inheritance has concretized my interest. Not that legal stewardship has all that much, finally, to do with “ownership.” As David James Duncan observes in his beautiful memoir My Story As Told By Water, we tend to confuse “purchasing” with “owning.” “Isn’t it possible to purchase a thousand products and still own nothing – and to own a thousand wonderful things yet purchase nothing? The quarter-million or so acres in Montana, three-quarters of a million in New Mexico, and the gazillion or so acres in Patagonia owned by Ted Turner are acres that have never been and never will be touched, comprehended, or inhabited, in any physical sense, by a fellow named Ted Turner. In what sense does Turner own any of it? (p. 74)

In that sense – and perhaps that sense only – Mr. Turner and I are alike; him with his gazillions of acres scattered around the world, and me with these 25 in Berclair. Indeed, there hasn’t been compelling incentive. This now isolated parcel rather functionally known as “Across the Creek” (“’cross the crick”), is the product of successive generational divisions of inheritance and is only accessible, as the moniker suggests, by crossing a deep and narrow creek on foot (or by heavy equipment unfazed by the underlying water). A driving approach from the other side would require the purchase of land that isn’t for sale, or access permission that so far we have failed to negotiate. And so these 25 acres of land that are difficult to reach, ill-suited to plant even if accessible, and until now too overgrown to hike. One might, then – in the epidemically utilitarian spirit so common in our culture – ask “what use is it?” Value, to this way of thinking, is inherently and inseparably tied to function, and this little plot by familiar measures seems to have neither. It is, apparently, good hunting land, but (with apologies to my relatives) that hardly affects my ledger. No oil has been drilled there, no crops have been grown there, no bridge has been built there so no house has been erected there. It is, one is almost forced to admit, useless. It simply “is”, and when has that ever been enough? You can’t even walk it.

Until, that is, now. Through the wise initiative of my brother along with his countless hours tractoring a brush hog, and the subsequent brute force of a bulldozer selectively applied here and there, this little orphaned piece of land now opens itself for exploration. And we did – leaping the creek, climbing the bank, and poking around; noting the landmarks about which we’d been told, discovering some of our own; surfacing fresh questions about “who” and “when” and “why” and “what”. We stooped to admire a tiny wildflower, and stretched to avoid a nascent cactus. We felt the earth beneath our feet – and occasionally one of its briars through our socks. We walked. We stopped and simply gazed. We listened. We noted the steel rods that are all that remain of the broken-down fence dividing cousin from cousin, and noted how artificial and ephemeral are the boundaries we willfully impose – and how little the earth could care. “Something there is,” Robert Frost wisely observed, “that doesn’t love a wall.” And we inhaled, deeply, walking lovingly and curiously the lines.

Did all of our walking make us “owners” in any stronger sense of the word? Hardly. But it did make us a little bit more “owned” by that land, and that, somehow, seems infinitely more important.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Praying for Rain

Fal•low / [fal-oh]
1. (of land) plowed and left unseeded for a season or more; uncultivated.
2. not in use; inactive: My creative energies have lain fallow this year.

Source: Unabridged (v 1.1)
Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.

There is something sad about it. We drove around the circumference of the Bee County farm land yesterday – a giant bald expanse carved out of a brushy thicket; clear, except for random tree; flat, except for a runoff ravine or two. Ready, but empty. Fallow, for the moment. There has been no rain – less than two inches, Troy tells us, since September – and so it makes no sense to plant…yet. There is, of course, still hope. A growing season deadline approaches, but there is still time. It could rain today and everything would change tomorrow. And today has begun with clouds – as did yesterday and who knows how many days before. This isn’t the first time this land has demanded of us patience – and forgiveness. It could rain anyday; we’ll have to wait and see.

In the meantime, the land simply sits: ready, turned, cleared, full of capacity; opportune.
But empty. Unused. Dormant.
If the land were a child it would be parked in front of a TV with an opened bag of chips, numbed by the innocuous drone on the screen and sated by the nutritionless crunch from the bag.

It is, as I say, somehow sad all this fallow possibility. But, then, I’ve known people similarly dormant, with reasons far more inscrutable – rich, gifted soil of the spirit, uncultivated; inactive; waiting, less for rain than for some unfathomed initiative or inspiration or, perhaps, some catalyzing invitation. In truth, I suppose, I have been that person more than once in my life, and I am grateful for those personal saints who came upon me in those dusty seasons and sprinkled me into vitality. Such graces received invariably makes me wonder about graces I dispense – or don’t.

Meanwhile, I pray for rain in Berclair – on all of us, I suppose – that our vast and fertile soils might give rise to that of which we are capable.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Red Bird's Witness

Resilience. The red bird perched on the gate’s dusty rain gauge like a sentinel standing guard – over us? Over the house? More likely, over its own fragile life spent in this challenging part of the country. Only the strong and stubborn survive here – mesquites and cactus, huisache and coyotes, longhorns and feral hogs. And this red bird. Even here the winter has been chillier than its little feathers would find comfortable, and if springtime is a welcomed enlivenment for me, it almost certainly is for the red bird. And as the rain gauge betrays, even now it is dry. It has yet been too dry for Troy to risk much of the planting, and so the fields stretch wide and long and ready, but empty. If that is disappointing, it is hardly surprising. Year after year farming is a challenge here. Two years ago it was drought. Last year it was floods. Virtually every year is a tedious question mark of “ifs”, “if only,” “barely” and “we’ll see.” But nonetheless every year the equipment rolls over the waiting land to sow and beckon the seeds. And every year the red bird reappears to sing. Resilience.

We drove into town yesterday for some errands – more Mexican Food, of course, and to look around. On the way back we stopped at the cemetery to look over the family plots; to say “hello”, if you will, and “we remember.” There in the center were my grandparents who were both born within miles of here, were buried here, and lived all of their life in-between here. I recalled out loud some stories I’m sure Lori had heard before. I smiled a melancholy smile. And then we noted the markers on either side of theirs: on the left, a son who had lived but two short years; on the right a daughter who had lived less than two days. How deep must such grief be? Lori noticed the compounding grief – that the two deaths occurred a short month apart. Two breathtaking griefs in the span of the moon. And yet a couple of years later, they were willing to risk it again, for three later sons ultimately grew into manhood – the third of which became my father. I, the youngest of the youngest who was born after the first two had died. I, perhaps, the most grateful of all for the resilience that moved my grandparents forward.

And now it is the morning after a long night of sleep, and as an old friend used to phrase it, “those same genes are running rampant in my body.” I am feeling resilient, too. Who knows what the day might hold?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Resurrection in Berclair

Bluebonnets in bloom intermittently dotted the median along the way from San Antonio to Berclair, the first promising sign that we were arriving at a good time. Air travel having proceeded on time, car rental smoothly following, and successfully navigating our way to the favorite Mexican food restaurant along the Riverwalk, we followed a leisurely pace toward the farm. A couple of grocery stores later (for basics like ripe avocadoes), and no wrong turns, we passed the big tree that signaled the entrance gate just around the bend. Thankfully, daylight was still in its fullness – fumbling with the padlock on the gate, locating the breaker switch outside the house activating the hot water heater, etc. can be a challenge in the dark – and unpacking followed uneventfully.

The Mexican Food still satisfying, we forewent supper, and sat instead on the patio out back beneath the live oaks and enjoyed the cool breeze and the calm. And the sounds of birds. And the rustle of the leaves. And the stillness of harried spirits. Lent had been full, after all, and Holy Week fuller still. By the dawn of Easter morning I felt like I was clawing my way on hands and knees to the empty tomb; getting there my primary objective moreso than savoring the joy of it. If nothing else, the farm in Berclair, TX is relaxing, and the mere thought of being there had been salivating all week.

And now sitting in the grand expanse of it beneath the trees, the sun slipping ever so subtly, it felt like the stone had, indeed, been finally rolled away.

Chilly now, with the sky coloring in the dusk, we begrudgingly went inside…
…to sleep
…and to smile with new life.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Long, Thin Days Interrupted

It's like the final leg of any long car trip -- the floorboards are littered with empty fast food bags, a cold french fry is crushed into the mat, maps and crayons are lost between the seats, and nerves are frayed. Everyone is on everyone's side of the car; no one seems capable of keeping "your hands to yourself." Whatever the appeal of the destination and regardless of the sights along the way, by this stage of the journey all is reduced to endurance. Bliss would be the nap that, at least for the span of it, would make it all go away. But sleep is as elusive as the mirage on the horizon; the miles and the hum of the road a kind of mortar and pestle that grind the last vestiges of vitality. Such are the trailing weeks of a bitter winter. Such are these final miles of a tediously long Presidential primary campaign.

Perhaps the value of an early Holy Week is the shock of its interruption. Out of an almost willed stupor, Palm Sunday snaps us and reminds us that something important is going on -- more important than politics and the numbing cacophony of innuendo, snipes and exaggerated misrepresentations; more important than even the swollen bellies of robins and the random eruptions of green. Something deep and fundamental is shifting the earth beneath us and stretching our soul within us, if we but have the spiritual eyes to see.

There is more to reality than Barack and Hillary and John; more even than the forecast of more flurries and falling temperatures. It may not lead the evening news or headline the morning paper, but since when have headlines ever captured the most important things going on?

It's Holy Week -- abruptly, surprisingly, gratefully -- and while we may not yet be home, we have turned an important corner. And sitting up a little straighter, we pay more watchful attention to what is really going on around us, to the nuances of the roadside along the journey, and to signs of our destination.

There are miles, we know, yet to go, but all of a sudden we are traveling them on different terms -- almost, and after what seems like a long, long time, alive.

Monday, March 3, 2008

On Setting High Standards

We seem to be losing ground. In this case, the "we" are mainline protestant churches. According to a new survey report released last week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the "unaffiliated with any religion" category has seen the greatest growth as a result of changes in affiliation. I suppose a Protestant could take some solace in the finding that Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses, but such churlish parochialism hardly benefits the church. Whatever else the report might suggest, the implication is that the church isn't doing a very good job -- even among its own. According to the study, "7.3% of the adult population
says they were unaffiliated with any particular religion as a child. Today, however, 16.1% of adults say they are unaffiliated, a net increase of 8.8 percentage points." So, what could be the problem?

Commenting on the survey, the editors of the Wall Street Journal (March 1, 2008) observe that "the Pew survey confirms what scholars have been saying for years about the winners and losers in this religious economy: Religions that demand the most of people are growing the fastest. The mainline Protestant churches -- with their less exclusionary views of salvation, looser rules for sexual conduct and sermons about social justice -- have lost membership..."

I find that a fascinating list of indictments: because mainline churches suggest that heaven's doors are wider rather than narrower; because our fixations stray beyond the bedroom; and because we preach sermons on social justice, we are losing members. We have, according to the Journal editors, "low expectations."

Really? Since when was social justice considered light weight? Since when did taking care of one's personal morality become more demanding than looking out for the well-being of our neighbors?

Could it be that the great hemorrhage of people draining into the "unaffiliated" category have concluded that, in short-changing our social justice obligations by indifference or silence, and by focusing so much attention on sexual issues, we have failed to set our standards high enough for them to bother with us any longer?

Just a thought.