Monday, May 15, 2017

As She Sleeps

This article originally appeared in Do South Magazine. 

Tonight, the light of my Macbook is spilling onto a hay-strewn barn floor. The rhythmic sound of tapping keys is mixing with a hum of crickets and the soft moans of the doe laboring at my feet. Tonight, I am a goat midwife. I would usually be in bed by this hour, snuggled between crisp, white sheets, feet entwined with the farmer. We would be asleep, resting for the coming morning, if it were a regular night. But it isn’t. So I am perched upon an old, wooden rocking chair with peeling red paint, laptop on my lap, waiting for life to burst forth.

Have you ever been so familiar with something that when you got a different view of it, it took you by surprise? Do you know what I mean? Like when you see a photo of yourself from the back and think, “Oh, how strange.” Or when you run into a person you know from work while on vacation in another city, and you hardly recognize them out of their usual setting? It’s like a revelation of something you thought you knew well, the realizing there is still more to learn.
My farm during daytime is as familiar to me as my own body. The way the morning light shines upon her through the trees, she glows and glistens before the dew dries. The smells of animals and manure mingle with the sweet scent of hay and grass. It assaults the senses in all the best ways and in some of the worst ones. The day is fruitful. The chickens are laying, and the goats are being milked. I tend to the garden in the mornings and spend the afternoons in the kitchen, mixing and kneading dough. The day is busy and long, tiring but so lovely. The night, however, is a foreign thing.
When I think of my life before this farm, it feels like looking into someone else’s story. The neighborhood I called home for decades now feels like a different world. Back then, when nights were lit by electric streetlamps, and the stars were drowned from view, I would have called night dark and quiet. Neighbors slept when I slept, so their cars and TVs slept too. And so it was quiet, and beyond the streetlamps, it was dark.

In the barn, I’m surrounded by the sound of chewing cud. Even as my goat herd lies resting, they chew. It’s a rhythmic sound, strangely comforting and so very alive. The sweet scent of hay is somewhat muted by the damp of the night. The hay feeder stands nearly empty, depleted from constant visits by twelve hungry girls today, waiting to be replenished by the farm boys in the morning. From the back of our property, a soft lull of birds floats through the night air. They make noise even in their sleep, the guineas, turkeys, and chickens. Low, hushed squawks and the occasional crow, it is a gentle sound compared to the roar and ruckus of daybreak.
In the far distance, a siren sounds. Perhaps the volunteer fire department or maybe an ambulance seven miles off in the closest town? I can hardly hear it. It reaches my ears more like a question than a declaration, but then Dakota, our giant white livestock guardian dog booms in response. The doe jumps in surprise, and I do, too. Then we settle back into our reverent waiting. The night, in all her soft and tender sounds, she is anything but quiet, and she fills the air again as the booming subsides.
The clock has rolled past midnight now. I heard the TV switch off a while ago, the farmer abandoning his wait for me to return. If I were to go in, I’d find five boys sleeping in five beds, mouths slightly open, with deep, soft snores emitting from their sweet bodies. And I’d find the farmer sleeping just the same as his sons, curled on the left side of the bed with blankets on the right side pulled back, inviting. I won’t go in just yet, though. I’ll stay on my post, surveying the farm and observing the swollen and stirring goat.
In the country, even in the very depths of night, it is not dark. Even now, the moon is waxing, nearly full. He joins with his bedfellows, the stars, to sing over my farm and those surrounding. The light that falls in the night is very different than the soft glow of morning or the golden blaze of dusk. The moonlight is cold and slightly suggestive. It plays tricks on the eyes; it transforms trees into shadowy towers and forests into bottomless expanses. But from the barn, it is a mercy light. It means I am not alone, with my glowing computer screen, in lighting the place.
Oh, and the stars, the silver, singing stars. I couldn’t see them from the neighborhood. I remember late-night car trips on country roads, when I, the city girl, would demand the car be pulled over. From the shoulder, I would awe, neck craned, at the galaxy I lived my life oblivious to. If I may confess to you tonight, from my rocking chair post, in becoming a regular farm girl, I have come to take the stars for granted.
Tonight is different, though. It is not a regular night. It is not a night where we arrive home too late and unload sleeping children beneath the waving sky without so much as a glance upward. Tonight, the stars have my eyes. They look almost layered as if laid down above me in sheets and I am certain they tell a story beyond my ability to comprehend. Surely they are a part of something so much bigger than me. Beneath these stars, on a little farm in the Arkansas woods, I am very, very small.
The doe is shifting, her long face lays upon the hay. She begins to doze, and I wonder if perhaps we will have a morning baby instead of a night one. The new mother in the kidding stall next door whispers sweet nothings to her day-old kid. It has been a fruitful weekend. My mind wanders to the contents of the pantry, planning breakfast for a full house. Farmhouse quiches are my fallback breakfasts for sleepy mornings, and tomorrow will certainly be one. As captivating as night is, the morning pushes her way in whether I welcome her or not.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Pear Tree and The Bathroom Stall

Tonight, Ezra ate a pear. 
As I stood over the charcoal grill cooking dinner, he sat on the back porch steps and ate a pear. He had asked me to cut it into slices so he could easily share it with Journey, our pet pig. So I did. And he sat on the steps sharing with her. He'd eat a slice, she'd eat a slice. Then, with a shout, he found the seeds. 

Mom! I can plant these! I can dig and plant these and make more pears!

My muscles hurt this evening from the time spent clearing my garden plot today. Our greenhouse is bursting forth with life. I felt proud of his idea. I knew his idea was, in itself, the fruit of the seeds I've planted in him, but then he held out his sticky, little hand. His sweet hand, the one that I held for the first time almost exactly four years ago. In it, I saw three small, black seeds, all badly damaged by the knife that sliced the pear, the knife that simply thought of the fruit as a snack not a vessel of promise. 

Oh, Ezra. I'm sorry, honey. Those seeds can't grow. See, they are damaged. 

He wouldn't hear me. 
He's passionate, you see.  Fiery. Persistent and Borderline bullheaded, with all the zeal one must have to change the world.  He dismissed my wisdom as petty concern and pulled his boots on. I knew where he would go, and he did. Straight to The Digging Spot, a dusty hole the boys have emptied and filled more times than I know. With the pig hot on his heels, he ran towards his goal in the way small boys do, all the while talking about how nice it would be to have a pear tree of his own. 

We can pick pears all the time, everyday. We can eat pears and not even have to go inside. We can even climb my pear tree and eat pears while we climb. Mom, you can even make pear jam. We will have all the pears. 

We will have all the pears. 

I could see the certainly on his face as he knelt at The Digging Spot. He swiped at the loose dust and dropped the seeds with as much expectancy as I've ever seen anyone plant anything. 
And then, without a single moment of warning, Journey the pig slurped up Ezra's damaged pear seeds. She chomped happily and then sniffed for more, walking away when she was sure that all was left was seedless, dusty dirt. 

One single, very pregnant moment of realization hung in the air. And then Ezra began to cry. He cries with as much passion as he dreams, with as much tenacity as he tries to see his ideas into fruition. 
He cried and he cried. And I held him for a while, and just let him loose the idea that a wonderful pear tree of his own would grow out of The Digging Spot. And when I felt he had had the proper moment to mourn his idea of things, I told him what I knew. 

We have a pear tree. Did you know that?

He didn't. Of course, he wouldn't. He was just a baby when we planted it, three years ago when we first moved onto our farm. And though it's grown to stand a few feet taller than me, it hasn't reached a point of bearing fruit yet. He wanted to see it, so we took a walk through the gate, back to the yard where the chickens free range and I showed him. 

He laughed. With the stickiness of pear still clinging to his hands, he covered his smiling mouth and laughed. 

I can't believe it! I didn't even know! I didn't even know this tree was a pear tree.

I laughed with him. We talked about what we would do with all our pears. How we would make jam and share them with the animals, even with the silly pig. Then he spotted the broody hen leading her trail of chicks into the coop and ran to see her. And I was left by myself, standing at the pear tree. 

The first time I remember hearing God was in a Golden Corral bathroom at one a.m. on a Saturday morning. I was eighteen, working a job I hated and on that particular night, I'd landed the noxious task of cleaning the women's restroom. It seemed that night had produced an especially awful mess to clean. Each stall was worse than the last. Tampons on the floor. Clogged toilets. Overflowing trash bins.

When I got to the last stall, I wanted to cry. I was tired and felt like throwing up. Trying to steel myself for whatever filth laid behind the stall door, I leaned my head against it. And I prayed. 
I was just finding God then. Raised in church and never having really known Him, I was just learning to talk to Him all the time. And in the Golden Corral bathroom at one a.m., I said something to God without even thinking it through.

If you really love me, let this stall not be so bad. 

Immediately, I repented. I knew better. I'd learned in church, don't test God. You can't say stuff like "If you really love me." I told Him I was sorry.

I don't mean it. I know you love me. I'm sorry. You sent your son. You love me, I know. Your love for me has nothing to do with the mess in this nasty bathroom. 

And I swung open the stall door. 

It was clean.
Completely clean.
Freshly bleached.
Toilet scrubbed.
Trash empty with a fresh bag and all.
Why? Because I had already cleaned it.
I was so tired that I'd forgotten.

I stood there in the doorway of the clean stall, half shocked and wholly wooed by a God that for the first time was showing me His complexity. He was showing me that He could use any means to answer prayers. Sometimes, the answer would be right in front of me, sometimes He would do it through my own weakness, but all the time it would point back to Him and His glory.

 Like a light bulb coming on, for the very first time, I realized that He knew my prayers and requests before I even asked. But He did want me to ask. He wanted my real heart and my real thoughts, not some churchy script. He even wanted me to say the wrong things, as long as I was talking to Him. 
And as the realization washed over me. I laughed. Standing in the bathroom at one a.m., I laughed with God at myself and I laughed for His goodness.

Tonight, beside a pear tree that was planted three years ago, I watched my son laugh at the provision that had already been made for him. So much like I had laughed that night in the clean bathroom stall.
Except this time, I had the view of the parent.

He's too young to know the power of the analogy he just walked out. 
Of course, the spiritual picture painted in my sweet Ezra tonight would be obvious to anyone looking for it. 
The son unwilling to listen to the voice of his mother's wisdom, like we are so often when wisdom instructs us. The damaged seed, like our futile efforts to do things without God. The unfit ground, The Digging Spot, that old place that is easy to dig in because the brokenness of the ground, but fruitless for the same reason. The dreams dropped before the swine, the swine consuming a dream not out to malice but because it is, after all, a pig. The pear tree long since planted, a desire met before it was even conceived in the heart of the one loved by his parents. 

The voice of God is there. Clear as day if our eyes are open, and it's there everyday in one way or another.
He is speaking. Concerning Himself with our concerns.
Moving on our dreams.
Speaking to our hearts.
In backyards and bathrooms. 
Before we even ask. 

The question is, are you listening?

Monday, May 1, 2017

When Heartsickness Lurks

This morning I received a sweet message on Instagram that set the wheels in my mind to turning.
I use Instagram more than any other social media platform. It's easy, and its become a habit to capture little squares and 15 second videos of our everyday to share. Because I do so often share there, our little life has caught the eye of people and I often get sweet messages of encouragement from those who enjoy watching our adventures.

The message today was a familiar one.
Something along the lines of Hey, I hope this isn't weird but I have been so inspired watching your farm grow. This is my dream. I want a farm so badly and I feel like God has put the desire in my heart. What do I do in the meantime? 

I try to personally respond to each of these messages with encouragement. Its messages like this one, messages from the homestead dreamers, that compel me to share in the first place. Because I remember what it was like to have a constant yearning for a life that seemed impossible. I recall the way the yearning itself takes on the feeling of a dull ache somewhere in the region of your belly. I remember what it is like to harbor a dream, having no ability to make it reality. And I know the feeling of teetering on the edge of heart-sickness, the certainty that you are foolish for dreaming barely being overcome by the optimistic grasp of "Just maybe...just keep hoping."

I wanted a farm for a long time. If I called it a childhood dream, I wouldn't be lying. I specifically remember telling people that I wanted to be a farmer as a young girl and feeling crushed by their laughter. Surely they were imagining commercial chicken houses and mile wide crops, and the spindly, suburban girl before them hardly fit the bill of farmer. But I had an idea of something different. Something that involved a red barn and a big garden and animals bringing forth more life.

Like childhood dreams often do, my romantic idea of a farm got filed away as unrealistic. By the time I entered adulthood, I had set my focus on more acceptable goals. I'd be a journalist. A photographer. I'd sell my gifts to do family portraits and maybe if I was successful I could afford a horse or two, maybe I could have some chickens in the yard and rows of tomatoes. I had kids young, went through a divorce. Got remarried. And my sweet Miah, my second chance, saw the long extinguished dream and said "Let's take another look at that."

Just like that, it was alive again. A house in the country, a little land of our own, a small farm and real, homegrown food were again on my list of "Maybe, someday."

You know, when I look at my life, I am truly overwhelmed by the goodness and the grace of God. Not because of any single good thing He has done because He has done a lot of good things. But I see Him more in the areas where I got things right entirely by accident. When I fell in love with Jeremiah and when my desire for a little farm came alive again, I wasn't being a good Christian girl. I was struggling with sin. I was broken, angry and largely lost. I was overcome by anxiety and guilt. I couldn't list the books of the bible to save my life and my church attendance was nothing to write home about. But His faithfulness isn't determined by my faithfulness. His love isn't determined by my  ability to follow the rules.

During that season, I started to read the bible. To be honest, when I started to read the Word again, I related more to the wicked ones who were mentioned than I related to the saints. I related to the seductress, to the adulteress. But somewhere along the way, I found myself in the woman with the alabaster box. I found myself in the testimony of Paul. Somewhere along the way, I begin to see myself as the redeemed. 

Years went by. The desperation grew. I appeased the yearning at farmer's markets. I drove to local farms to buy raw milk. I learned to make cheese. I grew what I could in containers, and read every resource I could find. I subscribed to magazines about homesteading and followed blogs by homesteaders. I could tell you how to butcher a chicken before I'd ever even held one. I learned to cook from scratch, learned to make cleaners and be resourceful. I learned to preserve. I thought about a farm all the time. And all the while I talked to God. I sought Him. I dove head first into finding Him and learning what His kingdom was about. So much more than my farm dream came back to life in me during those years.

Then between Christmas of 2013 and New Year's Day of 2014, during a date night to the book store, over a cup of coffee and a book about backyard farms, I cried. To my husbands great bewilderment, on a rare opportunity for alone time and in a very public place, I cried over chickens and goats that I did not have. My heart felt sick. It felt impossible. I hope I never forget Miah's sweet face when he responded, "God knows the desires of your heart."

I wrestled with that truth. Really wrestled. And prayed, the deep kind of prayers that feel like they scrape the bottom of your heart. And just a few days later, while sitting on the bed of our suburban home, we thanked God for everything He had blessed us with and put the dream of the house in the country in His hands. It might take years, we agreed. Our kids might be grown, we resolved. His timing is better than ours, we knew.

I can't promise it always works out this way. It would be unrealistic to think it could always be so neat, but within three weeks of deciding to let God have His way with my dream, I found myself standing in front of a vandalized foreclosure on four acres with a price tag we could actually afford. Three month later, we signed the papers that made us homeowners. And a few months after that, I brought home a box of peeping, fluffy chicks. Every single day of the process was an excruciating battle between flesh and spirit, hope and fear, patience and worry. And every single day, His grace was sufficient. Every single step, He was enough and I was leaning on Him to get through it.

I know that isn't a direct answer to the question: What do I do with this dream? 
I know it's a lot easier to direct people to wait and pray when you have the fulfillment of your dream in hand. But it's taught me a lot, it's changed the way I dream now.

Now I remember that God's timeline is way, way different than mine. Hugely different. Massively different. In fact, if I placed God's timeline next to my own and did a comparison, I might even question that they are even in the same classification. Yes, impatience still rears his head in the waiting. Yes, I still face frustration. However, I know that the twenty some-odd years of dancing around my homestead dream feel like a sweet process now that I milk goats in my pajamas every morning. That perspective applies across the board. Now when I think of writing books, another lifelong dream, I am able to keep in mind how sweet the process will be between now and then.

Oh, and the process. The process is our friend. Do you know, I am certain the success we have experienced since we started our farm is directly related to the time I spent hoarding knowledge and gaining skills in the waiting. Today I am going to make jam to sell at our farmer's market booth, a skill I learned with foraged blackberries we brought home to our suburban kitchen years ago. I didn't just sit on my hands and wait for God to deliver. I took hold of the vision He had put in my heart and made war with it, equipping myself and partnering with it to the fullness of my ability.

Let the yearning sharpen you. My goodness, if I knew what I had been asking for when I prayed for my life, I might not have asked for it. Five sons. Full time ministry. A working farm. Dairy goats. Horses. A huge garden. A bunch of chickens. A big extended family. The list goes on. Those things that I count as my biggest blessings are, without contest, the hardest things I've ever done.

But I wanted it all. Begged for it. Yearned for it. Persistently prayed for it. When it's winter, and the chickens get a cold and stop laying and the stench of the farm in mud season permeates every fiber of my skin and I have to buy grocery store eggs and produce and supplement all the feed, I remember how I cried in the book store. When my favorite goat dies even though I fought my hardest to save her, when the alarm goes off hours before the sun, when I get bucked off the horse and get a huge bruise on my jaw milking a first freshener goat, when I'm sunburned and tired and I want to give up, I close down the pity party and shout over it, "This is my dream!" I've learned that while this whole life is a gift, the waiting was part of the receiving. Had I gotten it all when I first asked, I don't know that I would have had the determination to keep going when it got hard. And it's hard. But it's worth it.

So there's my advice. It probably doesn't make you feel as nice as you'd hoped, but it's all I've got.

One last thing. One day, when you have your farm and your dream is in hand, don't forget what it took to get you there. Because there's always someone else three steps behind you. There's always someone else holding out for fulfillment. Give them a hand up. Loan them your testimony and remind them that God is no respecter of persons.

He did it for me, and He will do it for you.

And when heartsickness lurks, remember this.
He knows the desires of your heart. And He really does care.