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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A Deep Fear of Emptiness

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Wheels of baled hay bask in October sun:
Gold circles strewn across the sloping field,
They seem arranged as if each one
Has found its place; together they appeal
To some glimpsed order in my mind
Preceding my chance pausing here —
A randomness that also seems designed.
Gold circles strewn across the sloping field
Evoke a silence deep as my deep fear
Of emptiness; I feel the scene requires
A listener who can respond with words, yet who
Prolongs the silence that I still desire,
Relieved as clacking crows come flashing through,
Whose blackness shows chance radiance of fire.
Yet stillness in the field remains for everyone:
Wheels of baled hay bask in October sun.
~Robert Pack “Baled Hay” from Rounding it Out: A Cycle of Sonnetelles (1999).

 

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Each day I am called to see and listen,
to open fully to all that is around me.
From the simple stillness of the fields
surrounding our farm,
to the weeping of those who sit with me
day after day
in their deep fear of emptiness,
their struggle with whether to try to live
or give up and die.

Their deep fear of emptiness renders me silent;
I struggle to respond with words
that might offer up a healing balm
assuring them even in the darkest time
hope lies waiting, wrapped and baled,
radiant as fire,
ready to spill out fragrant,
to bear us silently to a new morning,
to a stillness borne of grace.

 

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Fall’s Warm Milk of Light

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portrait of Dan’s mom, Emma Gibson, praying, by granddaughter Sara Lenssen

 

I sit with braided fingers   
and closed eyes
in a span of late sunlight.   
The spokes are closing.
It is fall: warm milk of light,   
though from an aging breast.   
I do not mean to pray.   
The posture for thanks or   
supplication is the same   
as for weariness or relief.   
But I am glad for the luck   
of light. Surely it is godly,   
that it makes all things
begin, and appear, and become   
actual to each other.
Light that’s sucked into   
the eye, warming the brain   
with wires of color.
Light that hatched life
out of the cold egg of earth.
~May Swenson from “October”
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I know all too well that the end of October means the light changes, the colors fade, and the chill sets in.  I grasp and bundle up what scenes I can preserve now, like harvesting hay to be tied up in bales and stored safely until the middle of winter.  Then, at the right time, when I’m most hungry for color and light,  I loosen the strings and let the images tumble out, feeding me like mother’s milk.
And I am filled…
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Melted and Flowed

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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 will soon be haying time, as soon as a stretch of clear days appear on the horizon.  Today was to be cloudless but ended up drizzly and windy — not good hay cutting weather.

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, pulled back to the soil.  We must work fast to save it.

The light and wind works its 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 and 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.

Truly.

 

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photo by Nate Gibson

Making Hay and Raising Tomatoes

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There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage.

I won’t have it.

The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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Other than a few exceptional circumstances in my life, I have always played it safe: a down-home, don’t rock the boat, work hard and live-a-quiet-life kind of person. My grandparents lived that way, my parents lived that way so I feel like it is bound in the twists and turns of my DNA.

Even so, I do know a thing or two about sulking on the edge of rage, lost in a morass of seething bitterness about the state of the world.  Yet if I were honest about it, my discontent is all about me, always about me. I fail to measure up.

But then that is the rub: I can never deserve unmerited grace.  It is pure Gift, borne out of radical sacrifice.

And because of that Gift, I can live a life of radical gratitude, even if a little quietly.

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Dancing in Dust Motes

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ready
emptied and ready

They put up hay loose there, the old way,
forking it into the loft from the wagon rack
while the sweaty horses snorted and switched off flies
and the littlest kids were commanded to trample it flat
in between loads until the entire bay
was alight with its radiant sun-dried manna….
It was paradise up there with dusty sun motes
you could write your name in as they skirled and drifted down.
There were ropes we swung on and dropped from and shinnied up
and the smell of the place was heaven, hurling me back
to some unknown plateau, tears standing up in my eyes
and an ancient hunger in my throat, a hunger….
~Maxine Kumin from “Hay”

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filling up

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My parents knew that ancient hunger, both born on farms with teams of horses that brought in hay the old way while the children tramped and stamped the loose piles firm.

I’ve known that ancient hunger, having grown up on a farm that brought in to the barn loose hay the old way by tractor and wagon, having danced in the dusty sun motes on the top of the hay on a bright afternoon, the light cut in stripes over the sweet smelling grass.

We’ve made sure our three children knew that ancient hunger, born to a farm that brought in hay bales stacked to the rafters through community effort, those same dusty sun motes swirling about their heads as they learned their jobs, from bale rolling to lifting to tossing and stacking.

And now the next generation of neighborhood children arrive with shouts on haying days to clamor up and down the bale mountains, answering to the same hunger, blowing the same dusty snot and thrilling to the adventure of tractors, wagons and trucks, celebrating the gathering in of sun-dried manna together.

Surely this is what heaven will be like: we are all together, dancing in the light of the sun motes, our hunger filled to the brim by manna provided from above.

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