Friday, February 25, 2011

Watching for Old Fashioned Growth

Along the curiously winding path toward this whole "farming" endeavor was the Practical Farmers of Iowa annual conference that Lori and I attended in January.  During the course of that helpful event we became fond of two elderly but quite enthusiastic gentlemen in the exhibit area marketing a "revolutionary" snake oil reputed to accentuate photosynthesis, thereby accelerating and strengthening plant growth.  On a real farm you would apply it by the gallon.  In our application, a mister would suffice.  Of course we couldn't resist.  We bought it and have been eagerly awaiting the growing season.

Not quite sure of what it is -- and the research documents we were given notwithstanding -- and not quite sure, therefore, of it ultimate safety ("absolutely organic and safe" we were promised), we took the road more cautious and declined application on anything edible.  The flower seeds, however, were fair game.  We set up a kind of "test plot", with one row of flower seeds getting regular mists of this elixir of the gods; the companion row getting H2O alone.  All this, of course, was set in motion on Saturday when the grand seeding took place.  Since that time, my days have been happily anchored around animated misting -- 3 if not 4 times per day; anytime the soil betrayed signs of drying.  I am pursuing this project "by the book" since I have no experience, and the books say "keep the soil moist" -- a more challenging rubric than one might think.  A "day job" sort of gets in the way.

So, the misting -- both ways.  It was with some lament, then, that I jumped on a plane yesterday and left the "farming" to Lori.  She is, of course, immanently qualified and capable -- at least if my own expertise is any measure -- so it wasn't concern as much as envy:  she would get to tend and watch for precious signs of progress while I sat in day-long meetings.

Sure enough, then -- last night as I was getting ready for bed, my cell phone signaled the arrival of a message; a photograph, it turned out to be, from home, with the simple descriptor, "Growth!"  Sure enough, there, plainly visible in the grainy cellphone camera close-up, was green.  "Snake oil" green, it turns out.  Yes, the only seeding cells so far showing any movement whatsoever are those nudged along by our super mist.

Now I am having second thoughts.  Maybe we have been too cautious.  Just think of the pumpkin-size tomatoes we could have had if we had only sprayed the stuff on those seeds; just think of the beanstalk we could have grown on which we could have almost certainly climbed to the heavens.

But, then, come to think of it that whole beanstalk thing came with it own share of problems.  I reminded myself that I would be giddily content to see a tomato or a squash or an anything of any size at all sprout from one of these little seeds.  And, at the end of the day, I would just as soon watch it happen the old-fashioned way -- with water and sun, and soil and care...

...and time.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Let the Growing Begin!

Finally, they are in soil.  When it came right down to it, it took more effort than I had anticipated -- psychologically, if not physically.  For weeks, I have been accumulating seeds for my "farm."  I have relished the several experiences of browsing through the catalogs, making my selections, and anticipating the deliveries.  I have kept them bundled together in the box that contained the first shipment.  I have accumulated supplies.  I have counted the days, "anxious" in every sense of the word.  Eager.  Fearful.  Apprehensive.  Giddy.  And then for purely irrational reasons -- impatience, a full moon, whatever -- I decided that yesterday was the day.

On my way home from meetings, I stopped at the garden store and assessed my options for soil.  What a wonderland!  This gardening thing is a linguist's paradise.  I mean, where else do you get to toss around words like "sphagnum" and "peat"?  Where else do you find labels celebrating and extolling the virtues of earthworm casings and bat guano?  Even if nothing grows, I'll get to talk about all kinds of cool stuff.

Finally, it seemed like I was ready.   I laid out the seeding cartons...and then decided I wasn't ready.  I needed something under them or surely I would ruin the table.  I removed the cartons, and spread out towels.  And then I was ready...and then I wasn't.  Wouldn't it be better to have some kind of plastic over the towels?  Retrieving some rolls from the garage, I fashioned something as close to a waterproof membrane as I could manage.  And then I was ready.  I filled the cells with the casing and guano-rich soil...and then decided I wasn't ready.  I was going to need a mister.  As I was driving back from Target, it crossed my mind that something about my subconscious was imposing delay tactics.  Perhaps like the way that saying something out loud makes it somehow more real, actually inserting a seed into soil represented a kind of commitment to this large and largely unknown undertaking; as if sowing a seed was tantamount to crossing a line of no return.  As long as I was reading or shopping or studying or talking, I could pretend my way through this whole mythical farming/gardening undertaking.  But actually planting a seed, staking in the identifying marking stick, and, yes, misting the whole undertaking -- all of sudden, this was real.

But, as with a marriage, I am now committed; "in" -- for better or for worse; the dirt under my nails standing in as an enduring and virtual equivalent of the ring upon my finger.  Never mind that I hardly know what I'm doing, there is attention to pay; nurture to contribute; guidance to provide; knowledge to acquire; experience to gain; beginner's luck to appreciate and failures to learn from.  It isn't imaginary anymore.

I know that the very thought is preposterous, but I almost felt a hint of disappointment when I woke and passed by my little tabletop foreshadowing of a garden and found no green emerging from the brown.  After all, the very seeding had been so long in coming, it almost felt right that the seeds, themselves, would have somehow sensed the magnitude of the moment and hustled themselves into verdant growth.  No, not even I really expected it.  Even I know this much about the glacial pace of growing.  But that didn't stop me from wistfully looking twice.

I have a hunch that this won't be my last lesson in the great and powerful discipline of patience.  One more thing about which I have an almost infinite amount to learn.  What I can for now is that I have started -- actually.  No longer is it all about accumulation of supplies and tools and dreams.  Suddenly it is real.  The undertaking has commenced.  And I can't seem to take my eyes off of it...

...or stop smiling. 

Friday, February 18, 2011

Yes, But Can She Wrestle?

The big news around here the last couple of days has been the match in the state wrestling tournament...that didn't happen.  Joel Northrup of Linn-Mar of Marion drew Cedar Falls' Cassy Herkelman as his first-round opponent at the 112-pound weight in Class 3-A.   A boy wrestling a girl.  No word so far about Cassy's reaction -- by all assumptions, she was ready to go.  It all, however, presented certain challenges for Joel.  As a distant -- and even more dispassionate -- observer, I can sympathize with him.  Don't get me wrong; I am fully aware that High School wrestling between the sexes has been going on since the beginning of time, though typically in quieter, more covert and typically more perfumed settings; not hardly sanctioned, coached, or conducted in front of thousands of screaming fans.  Wrestling seems like an awfully slithery, grabby and feely contest that might best be confined to only the most affectionate or disinterested combatants.  That, apparently, was Joel's sentiment as well.  If you will pardon the pun, it just didn't feel right to him.

So, he forfeited the match.  

In a statement released accounting for his decision, Joel wrote:  “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Cassy and Megan (Black, the tournament’s other female entrant) and their accomplishments. However, wrestling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times. As a matter of conscience and my faith, I do not believe that it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner."

His Dad went on to clarify, "He wants to win state, just like anybody else, but his convictions and his beliefs are stronger than his desire to win state."

Everyone, of course, is weighing in on the topic.  Some condemning the match-up as inappropriate by definition.  Some have scoffed at Joel's reticence.  I can't help but agree with Lori's Dad who mused that it was a lose-lose proposition for young Joel:  if he lost to "a girl" he would never hear the end of it; if he won, the victory would always -- implicitly -- carry an asterisk beside it -- "triumph over 'a girl'."  Whatever one thinks of the proprieties involved, it does seem sensible to just sit this one out.

I grieve for the guy.  Nobody wants to arrive at the state tournament and lose out on one's dream -- let alone in the first round.  But what saddens me more is the total absence of conversation about young Cassy's ability.  We don't know if she is talented or a pretender.  Typically match-ups are sliced and diced as the relative strengths and weaknesses are balanced.  In this case, we have learned nothing about her skill -- only her gender.  

Chances are, we knew that already.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"...Can't Buy Me Love"

Several years ago I was part of a church mission group that traveled to a tiny Nicaraguan village that was completely "off the grid."  A single hand-pumped water well in the center of the community was the only water available; there was no electricity -- in fact, there was precious little of anything except for a church, the several crude houses, and a tiny medical clinic that was the focus of our group's efforts for the week; those structures, plus the people who occupied and animated them with their living.  There were no jobs, no "industry," and virtually no possessions beyond the few changes of clothing and the rudiments of necessity for cooking and repairing and gardening.

But -- and here is the mystery of it -- they were happy:  happy within themselves, and happy together with each other.  Even as I write those words I hear them to be inadequate.  These were not happy people; they were people of joy.  Suffice it to say that we fell in love with these people -- and were slightly in awe of them and their spirit.  By Wednesday night of that week, after the work of the day was finished, after the evening meal shared and put away, we were sitting together as a group in the deep darkness pierced only by the stars above us reflecting together on our experiences thus far.  What had we seen?  What had we noticed?  What had we learned?  What had we felt?  We talked about -- what else? -- the people, and we talked about their joy.  Summing up our affection and also our compassion for them, one of us verbalized what many of us were thinking:  "I just wish we could help these people."  And then, after several moments of contemplative silence, another of us confessed, "I'm not sure that they are the ones that need the help.  They are happy."

Somehow, we had discerned, in their emptiness they were full to running over.

I thought of that experience again while completing Ben Hewitt's engaging book, The Town That Food Saved:  How One Community found Vitality in Local Food about the small Vermont town of Hardwick that, in the midst of all the usual problems faced by rural communities haunted by a once-vibrant past and few present opportunities, is finding some fresh glimmers of vitality.  In his final chapter Hewitt writes:
"I believe that Hardwick is succeeding not in spite of its relative impoverishment, but because of it.  What is happening in Hardwick does not happen in the absence of trust and collaboration, it does not happen without a shared sense of destiny.  Call it vision, if you want...  And I believe that this trust and collaboration are in no small ways social and cultural responses to economic hardship.  Money does many things very well, and one of those things is to insulate us from each other.  It becomes a safety net, and when we carry a s safety net made of cash, we allow the one made of community to  slip through our fingers.  By and large, the people of Hardwick have not had this luxury" (p. 219).

Money...successfully insulating us from each other.  If our mutual indifference to and estrangement from each other as a culture and as a world is the mortal sin and grief I belief God sees it to be, then Hewitt's insight might turn out to be the core of what the Apostle Paul meant in his observation to Timothy that "the love of money is the root of all evil" (1 Timothy 6:10).

I hardly know what to do with this wisdom -- I, who likes my toys, my creature comforts, as much as the next guy.  And I don't mean this to glamorize or romanticize poverty.  It all leads me to surmise, however, that a culture now almost totally and absolutely focused on the economy and accumulation of wealth -- when every vote that is cast and every policy decision made are predicated on a kind of slavery to the bottom line -- has gotten seriously and almost certainly mortally off track.  We have bitten a very different apple, but the results, I suspect, will be the same.

The Beatles had it right all along -- for the whole of us:  "I don't care too much for money, money can't buy me love."

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Two Roads Diverged...And I Took the One Leading to First Class

In her sermon this morning, Suzanne observed how nice it would be if life were like a labyrinth:  once you find the open path, there are no more decisions to make.  You simply put one foot in front of the other, following the path, until you find your way to the center and back out again.  Alas, she acknowledged, that's not the way it works.

I know.  A couple of months ago I booked a flight to Fort Worth.  Frustrated with fares I consider too high, I opted out of the two-hour direct flight in favor of the $200 cheaper one-stop through Minneapolis.  It is, to be sure, a gamble anytime you add connecting points, but I don't take $200 lightly.  When my return flight out of DFW yesterday was delayed, I calculated the implications for my second flight into Des Moines.  It was going to be close.  Landing in Minneapolis, I retrieved my checked carry on (no, I don't think that concept makes any sense either), noted span of gates I would need to traverse, and began to sprint.   I arrived at the departing gate 10 minutes before the scheduled takeoff to find no passengers and no gate agent.  Just as I was dialing Delta customer service, the gate agent emerged from the jet bridge.  She guessed immediately who I was and said, "it may be too late, but let's try."  She held the door open and together we sprinted toward the plane, only to arrive at the plane-side door to find the cabin door shut and the aircraft pulling away.  Seconds too late.

What to do?  The gate agent apologized profusely and began to click away at her computer.  I thanked her for trying.  She thanked me for not chewing her out.  We shared a bonding laugh over our shared adventure and new-found camaraderie.  She clicked some more, she smiled a devilish smile, clicked print, and handed me a boarding pass on the next plane out -- in 1st class -- plus meal vouchers for the afternoon.  "Thanks again for being so nice," she said.  "Thanks again for helping me out," I replied.

Suzanne was right:  life is not a simple path that you casually follow until the end.  From the choices we make about which airline tickets to buy, to the choices we make about how to handle adversity and disappointment and our interactions with one another, life is far less like a meditative labyrinth and far more like Robert Frost's two roads diverging in a yellow wood, the choice of which makes all the difference in the world.

Sometimes it even gets you into First Class.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Love and Lament in Surprising Co-Existence

I have gotten into the habit, of late, of taking Tir to work with me -- Tir being our new Welsh Corgi puppy.  Admittedly, the church office isn't the best or most appropriate setting for house-training a puppy, but the prospect of driving back and forth between church and home every couple of hours for the  necessary "walks" seemed impractical and a poor use of time.  In addition, then, to the desk and the book shelves and the conferencing cluster of chairs, a portable kennel.  Several times each day I bundle up, attach the leash, dash down the back stairs and out the sidewalk door where we bustle around the next door lawn and the near neighborhood, getting a little exercise.  So to speak.

This has been going on since that Wednesday morning in early December when we brought him back to Des Moines from his birth home in Stratford.  I would like to report that he is becoming quite religious as a result of all this holy exposure, but the environment doesn't really seem to be rubbing off on him.  He bites hands and snaps at pant legs; he unties shoes, talks back and seems fairly unrepentant about his occasional accidents.  Maybe if he were baptized.  Meanwhile, he enjoys kibitzing with the staff and the office volunteers who think he is adorable despite his bad habits.  Truth be told, I think he is pretty darn cute as well, and I have been known to want to bite some people, myself.  So maybe the humbler confession is that, while the office isn't rubbing off on him, I seem to be.

This week, however, I am gone.  In anticipation, my co-workers were quite frank about their anticipation that, though I would hardly be missed, Tir certainly would be.  The portable kennel, in other words, is empty this week, and quiet.  In my absence, my beloved and indulging wife is picking up my slack.  Tir is her full time responsibility -- morning, noon, and night.  Her office, however, not being quite so amenable to co-habitation, she is making the repetitive trips back and forth on his behalf. 

There is a sense, I confess, of almost luxuriant freedom in being away.  There is, after all, a constancy to his dependance, and snowy winter days are not the most agreeable time to be traipsing in and out of doors.  That said -- and no one could be more surprised at this than me -- I rather miss it.  I miss his nuzzling cuddle when I pick him up from a lazy nap.  I miss chaperoning his sociable curiosity about the various passersby outside on their way to class.  I miss the little regimens of forced exercise throughout the day.  I miss the bonding lap time and looking up, from time to time, and simply catching the melting site of him across the way. Simply put, I miss him.  Over some small measure of inner resistance, I have fallen in love with him -- despite the darker sides of his puppiness.

The honest truth is I wasn't ready to have another dog.  I was still too deep in the grief over losing one, and bringing home another one so soon felt a little like violation; like desecration; like trying to artificially or mechanically fill a craterous hole.

What I have found, however, is that my grieving quite naturally co-exists with my new loving -- neither negating the other; in fact, both honoring and blessing the other.  It helps, of course, that despite their similar appearance, they couldn't be more different.  Each is his own personality; each his own unique and commanding spirit.  Neither is a cipher for the other.  Both demand and claim their own attentions.  Without contradiction, both laughter and tears, memory and joy, absence and presence occupy this common space, miraculously and mysteriously capacious enough to comfortably accommodate it all.

Guilty, then, over all the extra effort to which I am subjecting Lori during this personal time away, I am, at the same time, foolishly jealous.  What a delight it will be to find my way home... them both.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Difference Between Engine Speed and Forward Progress

It was snowing this morning; snow followed by sleet, answered by a few more whisps of snow.  I'll admit I was slow about venturing out to make my way across town to the lecture.  While I claim no special expertise with wintertime driving, I at least have some experience.  I wasn't all that confident about the Texans who might be joining me on the roads, and I had low expectations of the road crews.  How many snow plows and salt spreaders could there possibly be in Fort Worth?  But after awhile I was ready to risk it.

What I found was better than expected.  For one thing, there was scarcely a car on the road.  For another, I had crow to eat with regard to the road crew.  Someone and something had happened along to clear a path.  Nearing the campus, however, the road took a serious incline, met with a four-way stop at the top of the hill.  Momentum plus a little sand carried me up the hill, but the intersection, itself, had been neglected.  From the stop sign, tires spun, finding little purchase.  It was slow and lurching progress at the top of the hill.

Automakers like to brag about how fast their products can get from 0 to 60, but my guess is that none of them ever start their stopwatches while parked on ice.  Reality here is less a race than a test of patient finesse.

I'm coming to the sense that most beginnings of any consequence have much in common with that moment in this morning's commute:  sluggish inertia; spinning wheels on a sheet of ice trying to get up to speed; ephemeral traction; prodigious activity and a poverty of progress.  The choice is either wiser, tempered, more strategic pacing, or panicky, stressed aggravation.  Having some interest in new beginnings, perhaps the drive this morning was providentially instructive.  There is an important difference between RPM and MPH -- between the tachometer and speedometer.

Note to self:  beware the jackrabbit starts.  Chances are you will get nowhere fast.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Fallow, That A Few More Words Might Yet Grow

To quote the pop group America, from one of their hit songs of the early '70's, "I've been one poor correspondent."  Indeed.  It has been months since I have opened this site and applied, figuratively speaking, pen to paper.  A few people have noticed.  Gently, one recent Sunday morning, Jane mentioned that she missed reading.  Others have been more cajoling.  Mark recently wrote a tentative note, concerned, I think, that I had died.  Perhaps, in a way, I had. 

Some of the silence I don't really understand.  There has been much worth writing about these past two months; much that has been wonderful and good and even provocative -- perhaps enough goodness, coming quickly enough, that I did not have the skill or the spiritual pacing to process it all faithfully and commendably.  There was the trip to Stratford to pick out a new puppy; there were Advent preparations and observances.  There was our joint thankfulness that this year's Christmas celebration didn't revolve around the hospital, coupled with the reflective and enduring gratitude for all that last year's hospitalization accomplished.  There were eggrolls with the kids, and a floor covered with torn wrappings.  There was the blessed closure to Christmas Eve -- locking the church doors after the 11 o'clock service and waiting in the car in the empty parking lot those few extra minutes and hearing the renovated tower chimes ring out Joy to the World followed by Silent Night as welcome to Christmas morning.  There was the comic goodness of participating in the Practical Farmer's of Iowa annual meeting, and the happy laughter we enjoyed trying to discern if we even qualified for the "beginning farmer's luncheon"; ultimately concluding that our status was too premature to even be considered "beginning."There were the giddy evenings spent paging through seed catalogs, looking forward to the new adventures anticipated for spring.  There have been nourishing meals playfully prepared and plans, with some trembling and much conversation, collaboratively made.  And did I mention the puppy...and puppy kindergarten...and puppy whimpers in the middle of the night...and...

But there was, though I'm only beginning to comprehend and to name it, an intensifying need to rotate some inner crop, for the soil from which I had been drawing was depleting.  I have seen the literal equivalent -- earthen powder become so gray and denatured that nothing can grow there absent those artificial steroids we spray over the acres and forcibly disc below the surface.  The soil, in such a condition, is reduced to an empty matrix from which a few things can be forcibly extracted, but compared with its black and loamy counterpart teaming with organic matter, it can hardly be considered "alive."  Such, I am recognizing, were whole hectares of my inner landscape, all the while so many good things were blossoming above the surface and taking root in other parts of my soul. 

I don't mean this to sound like a sad story, and it is hardly an exceptional one; in truth it is a deeply rich and joyful one.  Depleted soil is not the same thing as dead soil; it simply needs the time and the space and a little composted manure to revive.  Manure, of course, is never hard to come by, never in short supply -- especially in church work -- but time and space can be elusive...until the soul simply takes matters into its own hand and asserts some fallow time.  I have missed telling some good stories along the way, but maybe those untold stories have become some part of the organic matter ordained to make this space fecund again. 

We'll see what all might grow along the way.

On the off-chance that you have been, thanks for waiting.  I'm humbled by the patience, and eager to see what sprouts.  Blessings.