Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Slow and Gentle Moves of Disentanglement

“So how does it feel?” a friend and colleague asked yesterday.
“Strange” was all I knew how to respond. It has been just short of a month since I announced my decision to conclude my ministry here at the end of August, and the responses from others have been quite diverse. “I didn't know you were mad,” said one. For the record, I'm not. “I didn't know anything was wrong,” said another. I'm not aware that anything is wrong. “I am sure you are off to something bigger and better,” responded still another. Well, not so much. I am off to something smaller and dirtier. I'm planning, after all, to farm. More specifically, I plan to learn how to grow food, and to write about the process.

I know, that sounds bizarre. To me, however, it has come to feel compellingly important. For one thing, I don't know how to grow food; and while I am eternally grateful to all those who have done it on my behalf all these years, I am no longer satisfied being the passive benefactor of their efforts. If the truth be told, deep down I am more than a little jealous of them. There is, I am coming to realize, something powerfully mystical and fundamentally, elementally spiritual about participating with God in this process of growth, nurture and nourishment. And I have been missing out. Never mind that I am starting from scratch; I intend to catch up.

But it isn't simply a matter of my own spiritual vitality. There is something missional in all this, as well. As I have increasingly felt competent enough to talk about out loud, we can talk all we want to about “feeding the world,” but if the means we employ are not sustainable in the long term, then I am not sure our efforts stand much chance of success. If, as it seems increasingly clear, that our entire food system – from preparation, to cultivation, to fertilization, to harvest and eventually processing and distribution – is predicated on cheap and readily available energy, what happens when either one of those provisos ceases to be a given? Or both? What happens when energy becomes too expensive to afford, or too short in supply to service the requirements? It seems to me that the answer is, "we get hungry."  Will this happen in my lifetime? Probably not. Will it happen during the lifetime of my children? Perhaps. But will it happen sometime? I don't see how we can forestall it.

So, what should we do? It seems to me that somebody better remember how to grow food on different terms, on a different scale, closer to home – in back yards rather than epic but distant fields. I don't know very many in my generation who know how to do that. I haven't yet met anyone in my children's generation with that kind of knowledge. I am not delusional enough to think I can save the world, but I am hopeful enough to want to be a part of that “great cloud” of collective memory that keeps such knowledge and skill alive; to learn, but then also to teach. I figure that no one is better equipped to chronicle and share the process than someone like myself who begins by knowing absolutely nothing about it.

So, yes, I know it sounds a little crazy. But it feels, as I have shared with my congregation, every bit as strong of a calling as the one that brought me to Des Moines in the first place. I could refuse and ignore that call, but I haven't a clue how I could meaningfully live with that decision. And so Lori and I have made the other decision. To be sure, as I told my questioning friend, it feels strange now in this “time between times.” I am here and working for another few months, but daily becoming increasingly irrelevant to the plans and decisions and visions of the congregation that necessarily continue apace. And I am not accustomed to feeling irrelevant. Or, in some odd and disconcerting way that I don't even like to admit to myself, out of place.

But the transition is important to both the congregation and me. Our lives have been intertwined for almost two decades, and some patient gentleness is required for proper gratitude and disentanglement. Strange, after all, isn't bad; it's simply...well...strange.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

It's All in Having the Right Kind of Tools

The problem, of course, with transforming the backyard of friends into your version of a farm is that you become hyper-sensitive about how it looks. It would be one thing if my seedlings were sprouting out on some random property off the highway, but given the fact that my 40-foot trenches were dug within sight of their sun porch means that they have become defacto agricultural landscaping. So yes, we mow the grass paths between the trenches, but that still leaves the edges. It is, I trust, a short term problem, as the flourishing plants will presumably and eventually spill out over the ragged edges. But at this point the naked shagginess requires some detailed attention.

We have tried the weed whacker - that gas-powered, twine-whirring whiz. But, alas, it's macro-trim, coupled with our unpracticed wielding has already decapitated nascent flowers and peppers. The world is already short on food; it can't afford such horticultural abortions. With a great deal more precision, we exchanged the weed-whacker for old-fashioned squeeze trimmers, but with 10 trenches that represents a lot of squeezing.  Our hands can only dream of being that strong -- and our knees that padded!  What is an aspiring farmer to do?  How to keep my hosts happy and my body functioning:  those are the questions.

The answer almost surely involves, as my late uncle routinely asserted, the right tools.  In this case that means a rechargeable handheld grass trimmer, and a manual grass trimmer with an extension handle that enables trimming without stooping or dropping to our knees.

Why is it that no local store seems to carry either one?

Never fear:  the internet is a wonderful thing.  The latter will arrive on Friday; the former on Tuesday.

Life is good!

Hopefully the trimming will be as well.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Eternity in This Moment

It is an odd thing to contemplate the End of the World. Today, after all, is the day all that is supposed to begin. I suppose I should feel chagrined that I have been up now for over an hour, am well into the enjoyment of my second cup of coffee, and am only now recalling the dire predictions.

I don't quite know what to think. Apparently there are only two options - being "Raptured" into bliss or being left to be embroiled in torment. To be sure, the whole timing issue has been murky for me, but here it is almost 8:30 a.m., and I am neither feeling any particular torment nor experiencing any supernatural transport. The birds are still fluttering and feeding just beyond the front porch and the cattle are mooing beyond the trees; the breeze is cool and the peacefulness is palpable. Is the Rapture scheduled for later in the day - after we have had breakfast, perhaps, so we can travel to paradise on a full stomach - or did the biblical calculators and code breakers get it wrong yet again?

If, as I suspect, it is the latter I don't quite know how to feel: relief or disappointment. After all, we have important plans for today that surely God would want us to see consummated - celebrating the 60 years of my parents' marriage. But, then, what are 60 years in the face of eternity? And aren't we supposed to be focused on eternity?

Well, despite all the hype and the titillating expectation, perhaps the answer is finally "no." Instead of spending every moment thinking about eternity, perhaps the divine intent is for us to spend eternity thinking about each moment - the gift that it is, the beauty it contains, the music of the spheres intrinsic in every every breath, blink, heartbeat and taste bud. Maybe God's most fervent desire is not that we spend all our time getting ready for something else, but treasuring the time that we have. And that the real torment is not something God imposes, but is the natural consequence of missing out.

So I think I will blow off the waiting and watching, and get on with the living - attentively, mindfully, gratefully.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Under the Music of the Wings

I remember the feeling I had that first week as a smug music major in college, cradling between my chin and wrist a viola for the very first time. After years of guitar, piano and organ lessons, after an intensive high school choral experience that not only involved challenging vocalise but also music theory education, I felt like I pretty much knew this world of music. I was no tourist here, I was a native - my heart a rhythm instrument and my breath a tuning fork. But in a single awkward grip on an instrument foreign to me in the company of a dozen other freshmen, I found myself in a whole other country. Far, far from "knowing this music thing", it became disorientingly clear that I had merely scratched the surface.

Sitting this morning on a Berclair front porch dotted with bird feeders, I marvel at the complexity and diversity of birds fluttering mere feet away. The hummingbirds especially captivate and punctuate a sense of both awe and ignorance. It's not simply that there are so many, it's that they all seem so different - as though to comprehend that it narrows it down about as much to simply refer to them as "hummingbirds" as it does to say "stringed instruments". Only in the narrowest of ways does it limit the vast generality. Differing colors. Varying Shadings. Nuanced patterns.

So I sit here in the coolness of the morning, animated by the purring wings, unsophisticated enough to fully understand the wonder around me, but fully able, nonetheless, to appreciate and enjoy it.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Because Beauty Doesn't Last Forever

It is Barrington who helped me notice the iris.  That last morning in October I sat with him in the chair -- holding him, cherishing him -- I determined to notice the soft feel of his coat, the tender look of his eyes, the resilient flex of his I could remember.  It was a life and death exercise in presence; paying close attention.

I thought of him again a few mornings ago when Tir led me out the front door onto the porch.  In the flower bed off to the right was the yellow iris in full presentation.  The bud had been teasing us for days with peeks of pigment escaping from the edges of its fist.  This morning, however, while we slept it had relaxed and offered its full self to the birds or the sky or whomever might glance in its direction.  And remembering Barrington's lesson that life and beauty are both fragile and fleeting, I made a point of accepting the gift the iris had worked these past several weeks to deliver -- the yellow, at once subtle and rich; the crepe petals folded gracefully into a still life ballet; the stem, sentry straight and tall.

In a different time and frame of mind I would have noticed the bloom, perhaps even mentioned its loveliness, but moved routinely on; forgetting how short is the life of beauty.  Already the crab apple blossoms, so long expected, are all but gone, and the tulips are leaning and faded.  But the peony bushes are still covered in balls, and the cucumber flowers portend summer fruit.

And just this morning, the lavender iris -- last evening yet but a promise and a tease -- had opened.  I noticed, and I will treasure the joy of its splendor for however many hours or days it shares it.  Because Barrington taught me the importance of paying close attention.

Monday, May 9, 2011

In the Ground and Growing -- Hopefully

I know, I know.  I haven't been writing.  It's just that this gardening business is work.  For the past couple of months my indulgent wife has tolerated seedlings and gro-lamps in the living room; over the past week, sans gro-lights, the little sprouts have spent increasing hours on the deck, "hardening off" as the gardening books call it.  And now, just to telegraph our progress, I am in hopes that as of today there will be a little break -- but I'm not counting on it.  As of today, the main garden and the deck are planted.  Whew!

The main garden ended up 40-feet by 25-feet -- 10 trenches, including flowers.  And just for the record, that trench digging is no picnic.  Yesterday I shared with the congregation this little snapshot of the challenge:

The process had been demonstrated for me, and I had practiced with a mentor who had ultimately loaned me his equipment.  But when I subsequently set it down on the ground that I would be planting and pulled the ignition rope, progress was miserably slow and tedious; and when the time we had was exhausted for the day, we were exhausted, too, with precious little having been accomplished.  We were discouraged and maybe a little panicked about how we were going to get it all done. 
The equipment was part of – if not the primary – problem.  It seemed almost impotent in the face of the task at hand, and so when we got back home we began scouring the internet for better options.  And the next morning we became the proud owners of a brand new tiller of our own – sharper, more powerful, more suited to the task.  Reaching the garden site, I gassed it up, pulled the rope and smiled as its tines dug into the turf that had put up such formidable resistance the day before.  The task was going well, and I was growing tentatively optimistic with every pass that I might just get this done, when suddenly the engine stalled.  Pulling the rope, the engine quickly restarted, but died again only a few steps later – a pattern that repeated itself time and time again.  Quickly my panic about the work still remaining returned with the bitter encroachment of unborn hope that was dying. 

 Even when it got easier, it wasn't easy.  But finally the last one was finished, by yesterday afternoon the last seeds had been sprinkled, the last seedlings had been spaded in, and it was time to call it an evening.  This morning Larry and I set up the fence netting -- plus an added little bit of deer discouragement -- supported the tomatoes and tomatillos, watered one last time, and I exhaled.  If you are interested, you can view the layout online.

This afternoon, I tackled the deck garden -- those 20 PVC pipes, all but two of which are 4-inch pipes cut 40-inches tall and filled with soil.  Lettuce, swiss chard, both purple and green tomatillos, various peppers, and tomatoes.  Too many tomatoes.  Between the garden and the deck, exceedingly too many tomatoes.  But, we'll see.  Who knows what will materialize? 

For now, Tir thinks it is time for a rest.  For the record, I agree.