An Advent Paradox: From Filth to Flowers

 

The poor, old stable of Christ’s old, poor country is only four rough walls, a dirty pavement, a roof of beams and slate. It is dark, reeking. The only clean thing in it is the manger where the owner piles the hay and fodder.

Fresh in the clear morning, waving in the wind, sunny, lush, sweet-scented, the spring meadow was mown. The green grass, the long, slim blades, were cut down by the scythe; and with the grass the beautiful flowers in full bloom – white, red, yellow, blue. They withered and dried and took on the one dull color of hay. Oxen dragged back to the barn the dead plunder of May and June. And now that grass has become dry hay and those flowers, still smelling sweet, are there in the manger to feed the slaves of man.

The animals take it slowly with their great black lips, and later the flowering fields, changed into moist dung, return to light on the litter which serves as bedding.

This is the real stable where Jesus was born. The filthiest place in the world was the first room of the only pure man ever born of woman. The Son of Man, who was to be devoured by wild beasts calling themselves men, had as his first cradle the manger where the animals chewed the cud of the miraculous flowers of spring.
~Giovanni Papini from “The Real Stable”

 

 

 

 

As is my routine on Saturdays, I spent the day in the barn, breaking ice and refilling water buckets, then going from stall to stall to clean out the manure and wet spots, and finally adding fresh bedding. Then I climbed high in the hay stack in the barn and rolled hay bales down to load into the wheel barrow to push into the stable for Sunday Sabbath, a day of rest. There are always chores to do every day, but they can be abbreviated on Sunday thanks to the work accomplished the previous day. This is the nature of farming– preparing and readying for what is to come.

Farmers, by nature, are a hopeful lot. We plan ahead, plot out our next year’s crop, choose our seed in advance and plant it with anticipation. We prune and we plow and we store up mountains of feed far in advance. We evaluate pedigrees and scrutinize genetics carefully. And we wait patiently. As I clean their stalls, I watch my mares’ bellies roll with the movement of their unborn foals and I picture the new life in my mind’s eye. There is a harvest of hope in those bellies.

Unlike many modern horse barns, our decades old stable is a particularly plain and humble place with dirt floors, and as the support beams have settled over the years the door hinges don’t hang balanced and true any longer, so the stall doors are sticky and sometimes hard to open in the winter weather. Despite the lack of fancy design though, I haven’t heard the horses complain–their meals taste as good, they are warm and dry in the cold windy weather and cool in the hot weather. Their needs are met there and amazingly, so are mine.

Christmas began in a stable–probably a dark cave that served the purpose of housing animals. It most assuredly was plain and humble, smelling of manure and urine, and animal fur. Yet it also would have smelled of the sweetness of stored forage, and there would have been the reassuring sounds of animals chewing and breathing deeply. It was truly the only place a group of scruffy shepherds could have felt welcomed without being tossed out as unsuitable visitors– they undoubtedly arrived at the threshold in bad need of a bath, smelly, dirty and terrified and yet left transformed, returning to their fields full of praise and wonder, telling all they met what they had seen. No bath could scrub so clean as the sight of what that stable contained.

There could not have been a more suitable place for this birth that was to change the world: the promise of cleansing hope and peace in the midst of our knee deep filth. Despite our sorry state, we are welcomed into the sanctuary of the stable, sown, grown, pruned and harvested to become seed and food for others.

If even the shepherds became a harvest of hope, the flowers of the future,  then surely so can we.

 

 

 Jesus our brother, kind and good
Was humbly born in a stable rude
And the friendly beasts around Him stood,
Jesus our brother, kind and good.

Thus every beast by some good spell,
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Immanuel,
The gift he gave Immanuel.

 

What I’ve Gone and Done

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Why do we bother with the rest of the day,
the swale of the afternoon,
the sudden dip into evening,
then night with his notorious perfumes,
his many-pointed stars?
This is the best—
throwing off the light covers,
feet on the cold floor,
and buzzing around the house on espresso—
and, if necessary, the windows—
trees fifty, a hundred years old
out there,
heavy clouds on the way
and the lawn steaming like a horse
in the early morning.
~Billy Collins from “Morning”

 

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He had driven half the night
From far down San Joaquin
Through Mariposa, up the
Dangerous Mountain roads,
And pulled in at eight a.m.
With his big truckload of hay
     behind the barn.
With winch and ropes and hooks
We stacked the bales up clean
To splintery redwood rafters
High in the dark, flecks of alfalfa
Whirling through shingle-cracks of light,
Itch of haydust in the
     sweaty shirt and shoes.
At lunchtime under Black oak
Out in the hot corral,
—The old mare nosing lunchpails,
Grasshoppers crackling in the weeds—
“I’m sixty-eight” he said,
“I first bucked hay when I was seventeen.
I thought, that day I started,
I sure would hate to do this all my life.
And dammit, that’s just what
I’ve gone and done.”
~Gary Snyder – “Hay for the Horses” from Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems

 

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Sure enough, I’ve gone and done it — spent over 50 years of my life taking care of horses. I’m hoping for at least a decade more if this little herd of mostly retired Haflingers continues to bless me with their good health and mine.

No one said I had to do this and plenty of people saw it as folly, including a few folks who continue to aid and abet my horse ownership.

When I was young and agile and full of energy, I didn’t really project ahead fifty years to see that picking up hay bales, moving manure piles and being stepped on by a 1000 pound animal is a bigger deal than it once was.

But fifty years hasn’t changed anything else: the smell of a muzzle, the feel of a powerful muscle under my hand, my reflection in their eyes.

When I lived in a city apartment so many years ago, I knew I sure would love to wake up every morning to take care of horses the rest of my life.  And you know what?

That’s just what I’ve gone and done.

 

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Wake with the Light

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Light wakes us – there’s the sun
climbing the mountains’ rim, spilling across the valley,
finding our faces.
It is July,
            between the hay and harvest,
a time at arm’s length from all other time…

It is the time
to set aside all vigil, good or ill,
to loosen the fixed gaze of our attention
as dandelions let seedlings to the wind.
Wake with the light.
Get up and go about the day and watch
its surfaces that brighten with the sun.
~Kerry Hardie from “Sleep in Summer”

 

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Saying good-bye to July
is admitting summer is almost half-baked
and so are we
not nearly done enough.

The rush to autumn is breathless
and we want to hold on tight
to our longish days
and our sweaty nights
for just a little while longer,

Please, oh please
grant us light
just a little while longer.

 

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Their Hands Swinging Together

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Light shone from the back of her eyes.
He had a broad, deep laugh
that could hold anyone in its bowl of sound.
They didn’t speak of the inevitable.
Were amazed by the fire that burned in their bodies.
Had you seen their hands swinging
together down the street at dusk you’d swear
they were children walking this earth.
~Kathleen Wakefield  “They Began Late”
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To Dan, on his 65th birthday:

 

A pass of the blade leaves behind
rough stems, a blunt cut field of
paths through naked slopes and
bristly contoured hollows.

Once swept and stored, the hay is
baled for a future day, and grass’ deep roots
yield newly tender growth,  tempted forth
by warmth and summer rain.

A full grassy beard sprouts
lush again, to obscure the landscape
rise and fall, conceal each molehill,
pothole, ditch and burrow.

I trace this burgeoning stubble with gentle touch,
fingertips graze the rise of cheek, the curve of upper lip
and indent of dimpled chin with long-healed scar, the stalwart jaw,
a terrain oh so familiar that it welcomes me back home.

 

 

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Running Over the Headed Grass

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Light and wind are running
over the headed grass
as though the hill had 
melted and now flowed.
~Wendell Berry “June Wind”

 

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It is haying time now, as soon as another stretch of clear days appears on the horizon.  We missed a haying window last week, and now are staring at a week and a half of uncertain weather with forecast rain and clouds interspersed among sunny warmer days.

The headed grass is growing heavier, falling over, lodged before it can be cut, with the undulations of moist breezes flowing over the hill.   It has matured too fast, rising up too lush, too overcome with itself so that it can no longer stand.  It is melting and undulating like a lava flow, pulled back into the soil.

We must move fast to save it.

Light and wind work magic on our hill.  The blades of the mower will come soon to lay it to the ground in green streams that flow up and down the slopes.  It will lie comfortless in its stoneless cemetery rows, until tossed about by the tedder into random piles to dry, then raked back into a semblance of order in mounded lines flowing over the landscape.

It will be crushed and bound together for transport to the barn, no longer bending but bent, no longer flowing but flown, no longer growing but grown.

Salvaged.

It becomes fodder for the beasts of the farm during the cold nights when the wind beats at the doors.   It melts in their mouths, as it was meant to, just as we are meant to melt and flow ourselves, rescued by light and wind and spirit.

Saved.

 

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Preparing Through Parable: The Seed Sprouts and Grows, He Knows Not How

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26 He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
Mark 4:26-29

 

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This parable “supplies an admirable antidote to overcarefulness and despondency. Our principle work is to sow the seed. That done, we may wait with faith and patience for the result.”
~J.C. Ryle (1816-1900) Bishop of Liverpool

 

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In Galatians, Paul refers to God sending forth His Son “in the fullness of time.” It is one of my favorite expressions to remind myself that God’s timing is not linear so much as it is spherical – we find ourselves in the midst of His plans, surrounded by time rather than journeying from point A to point B.

The sowing of the seed,
its hidden growth underground,
its taking root and sprouting,
its dependency on the soil and water and sun to rise above the earth,
its development and maturation and fruition,
its harvest and completion
to feed and seed yet again.

It is a circle, not a line.

Such fullness we cannot understand when we are in the midst of it; such assurance we can feel surround us as we wait patiently for the harvest.

May my eyes see, my ears hear, my heart understand.  He prepares me with parable.

 

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Photo of Aaron Janicki haying with his Oberlander team in Skagit County courtesy of Tayler Rae

 

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photo by Tayler Rae

Take My Waking Slow

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I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.   
I learn by going where I have to go.
We think by feeling. What is there to know?   
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.  
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Of those so close beside me, which are you?   
God bless the Ground!   I shall walk softly there,   
And learn by going where I have to go.
Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?   
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;   
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Great Nature has another thing to do   
To you and me; so take the lively air,   
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.   
What falls away is always. And is near.   
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   
I learn by going where I have to go.
~Theodore Roetke “TheWaking”

 

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In my rush to get from there to here
I missed some things.  The solitary song
of the chickadee; the play of winter light
on kitchen walls; the smell of fresh-raked leaves;
the summer days of childhood, stretched slow
from dawn to dusk, no need to know the date
or time, only the sound of a silver swung bell
to call me in for supper.

Could I re-learn to navigate by phases
of the moon, the ebb and flow of tides,
the rhodies budding out today before
the fall’s first snow?  Could I re-learn
to take my waking slow?
~Ted McMahon, M.D. “Slow Season”

 

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I took an unscheduled landing while wheelbarrowing hay to our horses in the field yesterday morning.

In my rush to get from there to here I missed some things.

I stumbled on uneven ground and fell hard, badly injuring my elbow.  Finishing chores afterward was a challenge and a necessity, wrapping my broken wing up tight in my jacket, doing what was needed before my husband came home to take me to the ER where good people who know me took great care of me.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?   
God bless the Ground!   I shall walk softly there,   
And learn by going where I have to go.

Even though no bones were broken, it was dislocated, so my elbow (and I) needed to be put back together.  The miracle of “conscious sedation” IV medication let my body “think” I was awake – I was surrounded by a swirling round of voices telling me to take deep breaths and constantly reassuring me–while the ER doctor and nurse put traction on my arm and shoulder, then twisting and turning my elbow back into proper position with a “clunk”.  I was blissfully unaware of the tugging and torque, paying attention only to the swirling sounds in my head, then waking slow to find my arm splinted and wrapped from mid-humerus to fingers — all fixed but now typing is also slow.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.   
What falls away is always. And is near.   
I’m walking more carefully now, paying attention to exactly where my feet land and what is around me.
The ground is near yet still can be a hard and abrupt landing;
I celebrate the good clinicians who put broken people back together again.
Great Nature has another thing to do   
To you and me; so take the lively air,   
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.
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