Saturday, July 13, 2019

Fifteen Minutes of Freedom

The thunder rumbled in the distance and the sky looked ominous as heavy, dark clouds rolled in from the west.  The early morning sun tried to push against the clouds, creating a purple haze that blanketed the trees.  I walked slowly, enjoying it all.  Unlike my son, who has an unhealthy phobia when it comes to storms, I have always found approaching thunderstorms to be invigorating and energizing, and on this early morning this past week, that was exactly what I needed.  

I was walking to our mailbox to mail a card, a distance of about a thousand feet, and I relished every step.  It was the furthest from the house I’d been all week, and the furthest I’d go on that day. Because I knew that, I was determined to make the most of my fifteen minutes of freedom. 

As I walked, the wind picked up and I dodged green walnuts as they fell from the trees above me.  The song of the wood thrushes accelerated as they too, became excited by the approaching storm. Soon, the other birds followed the thrushes’ lead and joined in.  They’re all starting their second nests now, trying to squeeze in as much reproduction as possible during their four-month breeding season. In about six more weeks, shorter days and northerly winds will turn their minds towards migration. But for now, raising a family is their only focus.

I wasn’t supposed to be home this week.  Mid-July through mid-August was the time that I had expected to be abdicating my domestic duties and instead, having adventures in the forest.  My plan had been to be working under contract conducting bat surveys while my husband held down the fort.  With no meals to cook, laundry to wash, clingy and overly-emotional children to deal with, and most of all, no longer being sequestered in my home, this time working was going to be the closest thing to an escape that I’d have all year.  A time to be who I once was, and not who I am now.

But, alas, in late June, I was informed by my employer that the company did not get the contracts it’d been hoping for and so, there would be no work available for me this summer.  My heart sank at the thought of an entire summer spent doing the same things I do all year. I gave into self-pity, thinking back on the days when I'd had a job that I loved and all the freedom that came with it.  With a government vehicle at my disposal, once upon a time, I could take off and head anywhere into the forest that I wanted most days of the week, doing biological field surveys and monitoring, and enjoying the change of seasons and what they brought.  Amphibian and bird surveys in the spring, bat surveys in the summer, botanical surveys, cave surveys, controlled burning, stream work, wetland delineations, habitat improvement projects…I loved it all.  

But I loved my children more, and after 20 years in a job I loved, I walked away.  I walked away because I couldn’t stand the thought of doing a job I loved while other people cared for my kids…the kids that I’d prayed so fervently for and had waited so long for.  I couldn’t stand the thought of dropping them off with a sitter when they were running a fever just because I had a meeting that day that I couldn’t get out of. But most of all, I walked away because I could, because I knew that I had a choice, and I wanted to make the best choice for my family, even if it wasn't the easiest choice.  Having tried the working parent role for two years, I was beginning to realize that even though I had the best of intentions, my family was still getting the leftovers of my time and energy while my career got the best part of me.  Financially, I knew we'd have to tighten our belts, meaning we'd have to re-locate and make lifestyle changes and put a lot of trust in God's providence. But the hardest part was knowing I'd be losing a freedom that I'd come to love so much. It was not an easy choice but once it was made, the peace that came after was almost immediate.

That was seven years ago now, and with the exception of this past week, I rarely look back. But, when the offer came a year ago to go back to work during the summers, the carrot was more than I could resist, so I worked two weeks last summer and hoped for more this year. It felt good, and healthy for me mentally, to be back in my old line of work, and after a few days of it, I found that my home life was becoming less and less consuming in my thoughts. How easy, I realized, it would be to go back to work and forget that I am a mother for at least forty hours per week. 

Perhaps a little too easy.

I flipped the flag up on the mailbox and turned back towards my house.  The thunder vibrated the earth now, and the wood thrushes had stopped singing.  My skin began to tingle as I stepped through our grassy field, and I became wary of rogue lightning seeking the tallest object in the open space. As I crossed back into the treeline, I looked through the windows of my home and saw my family.  I saw my sick baby laying on the sofa as my older children and husband prepared to leave for day camp.  They’d be gone all morning and I’d be left behind with the baby, who’d been hit with a violent stomach bug three days before and had just turned the corner that night.  I prayed that today, he’d finally be able to keep food down and that the fever would break, and that perhaps, he’d let me get a little further from his side because I had green beans to can and a cake to make and laundry piling up.

I smelled the rain in the air and a few seconds later, felt the first drops on my forehead. I picked up my pace, my heart beating a little quicker, as the outflow of the storm blew my hair away from my face.  Refreshed and ready to face my day, I stepped up onto the front porch just as the sky came crashing down.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

A Garden of Hope & Futility

I love gardening.  And I hate gardening. I love the harvest, until it becomes too much, and my days are spent canning and freezing and pickling when I’d rather be sitting down with my swollen feet up and a book in my lap.  I love the time spent outside, until the sun gets so hot on my neck that sweat forms under my shirt collar and runs down my back, but I can’t quit just yet because rain is coming tomorrow so the seed must get planted today.  I love watching my children push seeds into the ground and teaching them where some of their food comes from, until they decide to bicker over who gets to plant the watermelons, and whine about the gnats around their eyes.  I love watching my plants grow and bloom, counting each head of cabbage, and imagining plates full of fresh broccoli, crunchy salads and sweet corn ready by the 4th of July, but then the rain stops, the bugs come, the plants struggle, and I hate watching my hopes wither and die.

Hope.  If gardening is anything, it is an act of hope. But as with most of my life, what is often an act of hope more often plays out as an effort in futility, and this year has been no exception. What began as a great gardening season in April and early May was beginning to look like a lost cause by mid-May, when the rain stopped for three weeks and temperatures hit ninety day after day.  It couldn’t have come at a worst time, when the plants were still young and tender, just forming their roots.  The heat gave the insect pests the advantage as squash bugs, cabbage loopers and potato bugs arrived ahead of schedule, and took their toll on the already stressed, young plants.  

Each morning, I tended my garden and watched the scenario play out.  Sweet potato vines that hadn’t had rain since I’d set them out drooped and dropped their leaves.  Last year, I grew 40 pounds of sweet potatoes, a first for me, and our family ate them throughout the winter.  This year, I’d hoped to grow at least that many or more, but by the end of May, that hope was gone.  Our sweet corn, which I’d planted early enough to produce a crop by the 4th of July, only had about a 20% germination rate, so I replanted, but the lack of rain left the seed dry in the ground for weeks.  The onions flowered before setting on bulbs, and the broccolli bolted and was riddled with cabbage looper holes, along with the Brussel sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower.  Strawberries, which had been doing well, stopped producing and in only two weeks, the strawberry season was over.

On the last day in May, I went out to the garden to replant the corn for the third time.  There was a 30% chance of rain the next day, more than had been forecast for the past two weeks, and it was my last chance. If the rain came, the garden could be saved, or at least most of it, but if it didn’t, that was it.  There’d be no saving most of it, other than the tomatoes and peppers.  My rain barrel was empty and we’d done as much as we could with a watering can.  What the garden needed now only God could provide.  It was all out of my hands.  “I did my part, God.  Now, I need you to do yours.  Please don’t let me down.”   It’s a prayer that I’ve said hundreds of times, but probably haven’t said nearly enough.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I love gardening.  And why I hate gardening.  It’s also why I love being married.  And I hate being married.  And why I love parenting.  And hate parenting.  So much in my life feels like a love-hate relationship because I have bought into the idea that if I do my part, if I only work harder, pray harder, try harder, change this, change that, do this, do that, then I can produce my desired outcome.  My marriage will be happier, my children will behave better, and finally, the garden of my life will not only grow, it will thrive.  And when it doesn’t?  When I see those relationships struggling, withering, slowly dying, my response too often has been, “I did my part.  Now, you do yours.”

But just like God, my family will not be bullied.  Doing my part, no matter the level of effort and sweat and determination I put into it, does not guarantee a certain result.  Whether it’s planting the corn for the third time, or getting a little too firm with the toddler who still refuses to pee in the potty after 10 days of potty-training, doing my part will only take me so far.  And when I hit that limit, when I crash full speed into that wall that is all too familiar, I want to just nurse my wounds and run away.  “I did my part!”, I’ll scream to myself and to God, and every part of my heart and soul is ready to call it quits.  

Yet, each year, I plant a garden.  Each day, I get out of bed, hug my children, kiss my husband.  I planted the corn three times, and this last time, it rained the next day.  And the next, and the next, and today, we are into our fourth consecutive day of rain and cooler temperatures.  The broccoli, which was all but lost, is almost ready to harvest, the lettuces are giving us more salads than we can possibly eat, the sweet potatoes are starting to sprout new leaves, and in the middle of it all are five rows of single blades of green, all lined up neatly pointing to heaven, reminding me that God always does his part.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Gardening and the Gift of Work

Our garden is in, or at least most of it.  We still have sweet potatoes to plant, but those go in last, once all chance of chilly weather has passed.  But other than that, everything has been planted, and that is no small feat.

Not many people raise gardens these days, I’ve noticed.  Sure, a few people set out a tomato plant or two, and some may even have a raised bed with some lettuce and onions, which is great.  Few things are more rewarding than growing your own food, even if it is just in a small bed or pot.  But to really garden, to grow food across a large area of land, to produce enough to eat fresh plus put into storage for the coming months or years, is a pretty big undertaking, and certainly less common now than it used to be.  I have a lot of theories about why that is the case.  Fresh foods now are more readily available in groceries and at farmers’ markets, people eat out more, most people don’t have time to process their own food, many yards aren't suited to gardens, and many more are in subdivisions where gardens aren't allowed.  All are very valid reasons not to grow a garden. But for me, being able to raise a garden and provide the freshest, healthiest foods for my family has always been important.  When my husband and I bought our first house, the deal clincher was that the house had a great garden spot that came with it.  Kitchens and bathrooms can be remodeled, I thought, but a relatively level ridgetop spot with full sun and clay-loam soil cannot so easily be created.  

This past week, we planted corn.  My father, who turns 80 this summer, and I, share a large garden spot, and so when it was time to plant corn, he joined me and my son, Joah.  The sun was hot, and I worried a bit about him over-exerting himself, but he knew and I knew that it was time to plant, and that if we were to get it into the ground before the rain came the next day, we had to do it then.  I lined up the string for the corn rows, and my son grabbed the furrow hoe.  He insisted on making all the furrows himself, and I apprehensively agreed while my father watched.  The first row was a bit too wavy, and a part of me wanted to straighten it out for him, but before I could say anything, my father spoke up, “Great job, Joah.  Now, let’s make another one,” and before I knew it, the two of them were planting corn together.  “Now, Joah,” my father said, “planting corn is a spiritual exercise as much as it is a physical one.”  I smiled.  I’d heard this story every year as a child when I planted corn with my father in his garden.  He’d always insisted that if you weren’t right with the Lord, any corn you planted would not come up.  Manys the time when I was a small girl that my father would ask me to drop the corn seed into the ground rather than doing it himself, and now that I am grown, I fully understand why.  On this day, he and I were letting Joah do the same, for as we all know, children are closer to God than we adults, and my father and I didn't want to take any unnecessary chances.  Joah dropped each seed into the furrow patiently and deliberately, then followed up by using his furrow hoe to cover each row with soil.  My father said proudly, “Out of my ten grandchildren, I’m glad I have at least one who likes to garden.”  

I thought about that for a minute.  Of all the people in our extended family, it is only Joah who seems to take an interest in gardening.  My other son, my nieces and nephews, and even most of the other adults in the family, all head in the opposite direction when they see me heading for the garden, especially on a hot, humid day such as the one we were having on this particular day.  But not Joah.  Whether it is hoeing corn or digging potatoes, stacking firewood, or spreading mulch, Joah is ready to pitch in. The bigger the job, the more he is up for the challenge, and there is one very simple reason for that.  Joah is not afraid to sweat. This is not to imply that the rest of the family does not occasionally work hard.  They do, and they have the achievements to show for it.  But I also believe that most of us are not like Joah. Most of us make a point of avoiding hard work unless it is absolutely necessary whereas Joah just seems to take pleasure in working hard. At a young age, he has discovered that their is true joy in being a worker.

When my father was Joah's age, all the families in this community raised gardens.  They had to in order to survive. As a result, their lives revolved around the seasons and the harvest and they found pleasure in providing for themselves. Today, this same community has some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation and is plagued by an epidemic of obesity, depression and drug use. They left gardening and hard work in general way behind at least a generation ago, and sold off the homeplaces with the prime garden spots in order to pay for an easier life.
While in my father's generation, people took great pride in caring and providing for themselves, and making a "hard earned buck", today, the attitude seems to be that if you work hard, you are a fool.  Of course, the latter mindset is a fallacy, and no wonder those who believe it are often plagued by physical health issues and mental stress. If only they realized that the ability to work is a gift from God.

This past week, the day that we put the last of the seed into the garden, was also the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker.  It’s a lesser known feast day for St. Joseph, as the big one occurs on March 19, which many Catholics, including my family, celebrate with cream puffs and sweet treats.  However, this year, on May 1, I thought it appropriate that my family was celebrating the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker by doing nothing more than tiresome, hot, sweaty, unnecessary manual labor.  We worked, we sweated, and we did it for no reward beyond the knowledge that we were blessed to be able to do it, and we were led by a little boy and an old man who both know that hard work is the secret to a rewarding life.  

St. Joseph the Worker, pray for us.