When We are Fallow and Infertile

Screen Shot 2016-12-23 at 10.28.47 AM 'Tis the season for all the top ten lists. I thought of doing one but decided against, for various reasons. Writing, for me, has taken a different turn in this season and I've had to mourn the loss with tears, stalwart determination, and sometimes crippled fingers and thoughts. Last week I confessed in tears to Nate that one of the hardest parts of life this year has been how quickly the world turns and how my work has faded from sight, and how forgotten I've felt as time and people progress and we feel stuck. It was a good talk, a humbling one and a needed confession of my own sin. This week I've just tried to remember, remember, remember all that God has done in this fallow season.

Fallow is an agricultural term meaning, simply, to let a field alone for a period of time in order to restore its fertility. As I look over 2016, and the lingering parts of 2015, it's very easy for me to see all the death and none of the fertility. What have we borne? Nothing, even if you look closely, which I have been trying to do. And there is something inside of me—and probably inside of you—that wants to rush to cover over that sad statement with so many reminders of "All The Good Things!" But, just as those fields need times of fallow, of non-productiveness, of not bearing, and seeming to all the world and the field too, of having lost their ability to bear, God is still doing something in that neglected dirt. The platitudes we want to console or coddle with actually make what isn't happening less beautiful. If I look closely enough I can see God's beautiful sovereign hand in all of the seeming nothing. This may not make sense to you, it barely does to me in my cognitive moments, but in my poetic moments, those mysterious ah-has creep into my heart unawares and surprise me with comfort, joy, hope, and peace.

I take great comfort right now in not being able to know the mind of God, even if I try. For all my attempts to garner an explanation for what He has done and is doing with our lives, or to wrangle a glimpse of next year, or bribe my way into what I want or less of what I don't want, I'm humbled that the only show of hands is His promise of Love. He gives the presence of Jesus, as a baby, in a humble birth, and permission to pray "Our Father" even when He is off in Heaven and we are still here on dirt-encrusted earth, and the gift of His Spirit, comforting, helping, teaching, always quietly and sometimes imperceptibly.

God is doing something in the fallow field, so small, so magnificent, so intricate, and so miraculous, that it would astound me to know the details and so, instead, it just seems to me a dark, hardened, untended, infertile, and frozen acre of dirt. Planting will come, and someday, again, fruit, and then harvesting, but fallowing is just as important for the process as seed sowing and sun shining, it simply isn't as pretty in the meantime.

Thank you, Father, for leaving us fallow sometimes, but never leaving us, ever, any of the time. 

The Kind of Wells We Find at Home

I had promised myself to post more here these days. To be a hunter of beauty and a finder of joy in a season where everywhere we look are reminders of fracturing and fragility. I don't really believe that, though, I think. Lately I've been reminded of how whole and perfect and beautiful things are and are becoming. Staying away from the angry articles and interviews and response blogs and angry response blogs and retweeted tweets is helpful for that though. Eternity really is written on the hearts of men, but I guess sometimes we think hell is eternity and not heaven. I've been grateful for heaven this past week. I went home and on my way there I sent a text to Nate: "Where is home for you?" I asked. "If there's anywhere in the world that feels, smells, tastes like home, where is that, for you?" He responded a bit later. "Virginia or D.C., I thought, but now that we're here, it doesn't. Maybe Germany. Not Turkey. Not New Jersey. Not Michigan. Not Georgia. Maybe Texas, I lived there the longest. What about you?" I wasn't sure how to answer but as I continued to drive north and the bite of cold worked its way into my bones and the leaves grew more and more brilliant, I knew it was here, or at least here was the way to home. Eternity is written on our hearts, but earth is worked into our soles, embedded there with soil and leaves and tastes and scents of home. And so, I went home for a few days and it was lovely. New York in the fall always is.

While I was there I made it my aim to spend time with two women I love and with whom my time is always too short when I stop there for a few days. We had good conversations and talked about hard things. Mostly they talked and I listened but I felt my heart swell with love for both of them. And I also felt it swell with the kind of admiration I want to have for more people and don't. They are walking through hard, hard, hard things and doing it well. Broken, sad, hurting, questioning, but this is the kind of well I think more of us need to draw from. The deep and aching sob of hurt reaches down past the normalcy of everyday, the kinds of days full of predictable nonsense and unexpected joy. These wells are deeper than that and rare to find. I think of the book of Psalms, the 84th chapter:

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.

The valley of Baka, or Baca, means the valley of tears, and another translation says, "They make it a place of wells." This is what tears do, if we'll let them. They pool in us deep caverns of proven grace, proven character, and a proven God, and they become wells. Spring rains bring life and flowers and greens everywhere, but autumn rains pull the dead and dying leaves from their stark trees, making dead things seem deader. But the poet said once, "Be like the trees. Let the dead things drop."

The dead things, I find, for me these days, are feelings of shame, fear, uncertainty. It has been a rocking year, one I would never repeat if offered prizes of greatest worth. Shame has been my constant enemy and fear its close neighbor, tears have felt at times like my only friend. But if I can just let this valley of tears pool itself into wells, I know there is sustenance to be found there. I believe it with all my heart.

. . .

I was glad to arrive at the weekend with no knowledge of any election news, no interviews with famous Christian women, and a naive belief that God was repairing and preparing this world instead of breaking it. I dipped my toe into the latest for a minute, but found the well of my tears a better pool to swim in these days. Here are some beautiful things I've read this week:

From John Blase (whose poetry you should be reading, and whose letters to Winn you should also be reading): I’ll never forget that rainy day I wore my Scout uniform to school not knowing our meeting was cancelled. Those were halcyon days before group text messages and reverse 911s.

From Cloistered Away: Training sounds like such an intense word, but all it is: reestablishing the order and peace of the home. The goal isn’t to lead perfect lives; it’s to heed the red flags as helpful guides letting us know some things need to change. Today always offers a fresh start and new mercy. When life feels chaotic, here is what we do to cultivate peace in our home again.

From Literary Hub: Writing is facing your deepest fears and all your failures, including how hard it is to write a lot of the time and how much you loathe what you’ve just written and that you’re the person who just committed those flawed sentences (many a writer, and God, I know I’m one, has worried about dying before the really crappy version is revised so that posterity will never know how awful it was). When it totally sucks, pause, look out the window (there should always be a window) and say, I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing.

This quote from George Eliot in her Letters to Miss Lewis keeps going round and round in my head. I read it many years ago think of it every autumn. I hope you love this season as much as I do, and if you don't, I hope someday you do. Just because, no reason, just because. Below is a photo I took at home. I stood there and was reminded me of her Delicious Autumns.

Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love - that makes life and nature harmonise. The birds are consulting about their migrations, the trees are putting on the hectic or the pallid hues of decay, and begin to strew the ground, that one's very footsteps may not disturb the repose of earth and air, while they give us a scent that is a perfect anodyne to the restless spirit. Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.

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Clear Dances Done in the Sight of Heaven

I have dreamed of doing laundry for a long time. I dreamed of a washing machine near my kitchen, the table piled high with his and hers and theirs, the backyard with a line strung through it, billowing sheets and hand-towels and discreet underthings with the sun bleaching everything to near new. I dreamed of what that laundry meant and how it would be proof that life had settled and moved into a rhythm, not an easy one, but a known one. The poet, Richard Wilbur, says, "Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry / Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam / And clear dances done in the sight of heaven," so I cannot help myself for romanticizing it. Since I first read this poem I knew that if Love ever called me to the things of this world, this was the thing I wanted to be called to: nothing on earth but laundry, his and hers and theirs.

I think of this today and every day now because we live in a rental house where the laundry is tucked in a narrow closet in a small back room upstairs, where the doors aren't level and never stay opened or closed, depending on what I want them to do. And where the washer, and the dryer above it, are barely large enough for a single load of hand-towels. The dryer finishes with a buzz so loud you can hear it on our back porch and front porch too. And the floors aren't level and so for 45 minutes while the washer cleans, it also shakes our home near to falling apart. Every day I wonder, "Will this be the day it comes crashing through to the kitchen below?" This is not the laundry I imagined doing with my life.

I cried hard today on the phone with my husband. I knew I would before he called, I knew if he mentioned a certain string of words he is prone to mentioning these days in a certain order that all the things inside of me would break and be nudged out of their crevices and I would cry.

Richard Wilbur wrote also "The soul shrinks / From all that it is about to remember, / From the punctual rape of every blessèd day," and I used to think I knew what that meant. Before the laundry of my life—and not my dreams—became reality. I imagine rows of people lining up to say in my general direction, but not to me, "I told her so." I falter. I fall.

This is not the laundry I imagined once: the sort billowing on clotheslines in the backyards of cabins or farmhouses or small bungalows; the sort worn by people who knew a hard day's work, but knew how to rest too; the sort where the lights and the darks never landed in the same heap in the corner of the closet, and where they always landed in baskets and not heaps in the corners of the closet to begin with.

This laundry is loud and hard and long and mixed and never ending. It is everywhere and always and all the time. It is folded and put away and then tomorrow it is in need of wash again. It never ends. It is the "punctual rape of every blessed day" and today I break with it. The washer is pounding itself into the wall again and the dog is barking downstairs and the door won't stay open long enough for me to hold a basket and go out of it. There is work to be done for others and work to be done for myself and I am still wearing the shorts I pulled on at 5:47 this morning. I have not brushed my teeth. I have had three cups of coffee and three wide mouth Mason jars of water and the dog won't stop whining and my husband and I are disagreeing in a frustratingly agreeable way and now the dryer is buzzing three times at me and I crumble because this is not the laundry I imagined.

I bring the basket of clean clothes into our closet and pull the necks of shirts over the cedar hangers. I catch a scent different than detergent. The scent of my husband. His dress shirts hanging above with a new rule instated by me: wear your shirts more than once because I cannot make laundry my whole life. I gather them in my hands and pull them close and inhale. The smell of work and soap and laundry and him, my love, my thing of this world.

Love does call us to the things of this world and it looks more like "clear dances done in the sight of heaven" than I thought it would. Quiet faithfulness, echoing silence, long days, little praise, the presence of God and a puppy and not much else. This was not the laundry I imagined, but it may be the laundry I needed.

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World BY RICHARD WILBUR

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys, And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple As false dawn. Outside the open window The morning air is all awash with angels.

Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses, Some are in smocks: but truly there they are. Now they are rising together in calm swells Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

Now they are flying in place, conveying The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving And staying like white water; and now of a sudden They swoon down into so rapt a quiet That nobody seems to be there. The soul shrinks

From all that it is about to remember, From the punctual rape of every blessèd day, And cries, “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry, Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

Yet, as the sun acknowledges With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors, The soul descends once more in bitter love To accept the waking body, saying now In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises, “Bring them down from their ruddy gallows; Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves; Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone, And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating Of dark habits, keeping their difficult balance.”

There is Not Enough to Go Around

generosity On our own, we conclude: there is not enough to go around

we are going to run short of money of love of grades of publications of sex of beer of members of years of life

We should seize the day seize our goods seize our neighbors goods because there is not enough to go around

and in the midst of our perceived deficit you come you come giving bread in the wilderness you come giving children at the 11th hour you come giving homes to exiles you come giving futures to the shut down you come giving easter joy to the dead you come—fleshed in Jesus.

and we watch while the blind receive their sight the lame walk the lepers are cleansed the deaf hear the dead are raised the poor dance and sing

we watch and we take food we did not grow and life we did not invent and future that is gift and gift and gift and families and neighbors who sustain us when we did not deserve it.

It dawns on us – late rather than soon- that you “give food in due season you open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.”

By your giving, break our cycles of imagined scarcity override our presumed deficits quiet our anxieties of lack transform our perceptual field to see the abundance...mercy upon mercy blessing upon blessing.

Sink your generosity deep into our lives that your muchness may expose our false lack that endlessly receiving we may endlessly give so that the world may be made Easter new, without greedy lack, but only wonder, without coercive need but only love, without destructive greed but only praise without aggression and invasiveness… all things Easter new… all around us, toward us and by us

all things Easter new.

Finish your creation, in wonder, love and praise. Amen. ― Walter Brueggemann

Poets of People

A friend told me that he and I are farmers at heart, driven by seasons and weather, but that right now we're called to cultivate people instead of earth. I cried when he said that because people are made of earth too, but it's hard to tell with all the concrete around. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

A few weeks ago I met with one of my pastors who stared incredulously at me when I listed all the things I'm doing and how spent by it all I am.

"Lore," he said, "that's because you're a poet. You need time for reflection and perfection. And all this doesn't seem conductive to that. You need time to sow."

I nearly wept right there. It has been a long time since someone said those words to me and I had forgotten.

"You are a poet."

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Mondays are roommate nights in our house. We finish whatever chores are in our envelopes, cook dinner, set the table, sit in our respective chairs, and spend the next few hours being together. There is no agenda apart from that. We sow into one another with laughter, knowledge, prayer, questions.

The candles drip wax on our tablecloth, proof that dinner goes long and we are in no rush.

After the meal is finished we read the bible aloud. Last night we add some poetry (Walt Whitman) and the birth of Cain as told by Madeleine L'Engle. Then one pulls out her guitar and we sing. Not spiritual songs and hymns, but whatever comes to mind. We end the night going to separate rooms, but not before saying, "I love you," to every one. Because in this home we are working the ground of Already and Not Yet.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I've been reading in Genesis this week, the creation account. Thinking about design and flaw, disobedience and animal skin, craftiness and provision. God gave his people what they needed, even after they chose exactly what they didn't need. But before all that, he blessed them and gave them something to cultivate.

And God blessed them.

And God said to them, “Be fruitful multiply

fill the earth subdue it, have dominion over the fish of the sea over the birds of the heavens

over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

It was Friedrich Nietzsche who said, "The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is that there should be a long obedience in the same direction," and I think of rows of tilled soil whenever I think of that quote. Eugene Peterson used it as a title for his book on discipleship. What is discipleship if not cultivating the earth by cultivating people? And how do we cultivate people if we do not do the slow work of farming, working in proper seasons and times? Perhaps discipleship is the work of poets, those "holding onto the mystery of faith with clear consciences?" Poets are the the seers, the nuance holders, and the farmers.

"God, make me a poet of people."

longobedience