On the Yelling Goat and Greenberry Picking

I. My grandpa's name was Leroy Haines (emphasis on the "lee"). He was the son of a Oklahoma alcoholic, an up-and-coming, self-proclaimed metropolitan man who fancied himself quite the used car salesman before the liquor caught up with him.

My grandpa's father tramped his way up toward Wichita, left his wife to raise a few boys in the days before the world celebrated the grit and bravery of single-motherhood. Sometime near grandpa's coming into adolescence, my great grandmother met and married a Californian and moved west toward better prospects. Grandpa stayed behind, he being raised by good German stock who spoke nary a word of English.

Leroy Haines was strong as an ox, even in his latter years, but I suspect he made a useful farmhand to his grandfather Henke. He once told me the stories of hitching the horses to the plow, of cutting Oklahoma sod from sunup to high-noon until his grandmother interrupted him with a lunch of homemade sourdough, salted pork, and a bottle of beer. At the time, my grandfather was fifteen.

What memories my grandfather had of any boyhood came from the farm. They were memories of work, but boyhood memories nonetheless. These were the times before the war. These were the days before the Red Bulls made their march through Italy, before he shouldered his Browning Automatic Rifle and sent men to heaven and hell alike, before he took shrapnel in the buttocks and earned awkward sponge baths from a nurse who'd been relocated from Spokane to the European theater. His days on the farm were before the anti-segregation sit-ins at the New Orleans Woolworth's, the store where he was a manager. They were the days before his son, my father, flew over the handlebars of a motorcycle and broke his back.

[tweetherder text="A boy's farm days can be a sort of innocent Eden, they bearing the first-fruits of easier memories."]A boy's farm days can be a sort of innocent Eden, they bearing the first-fruits of easier memories.[/tweetherder]

It should come as no surprise, then, that in my grandfather's retirement, he fancied himself a hobby farmer. He and my grandmother Lerene (emphasis again on the "lee") relocated to the Ozarks, moved into a stone house attached to thirteen acres. He kept cattle in the pasture, raised corn and pole beans in the garden, and tended to a few colonies of bees. He had an old farm dog named Buddy who had a thick matted coat and was good for nothing except sleeping. He kept an old plow in the barn, a plow which, to my knowledge, was not once hitched to a his old black horse. The old black horse, also named Buddy, was as skittish as a cow, a worthless equine if ever there were one.

I don't recall whether my grandfather ever produced anything worth saving on the old homestead, but I remember he called it his "gentleman's farm." With a twinkle in his eye, he said it reminded him of his Oklahoma youth.

II.

There are any number of reasons for an Arkansas gentleman to keep an Arkansan gentleman's farm. Some are kept out of some sense of nostalgia, while the more wealthy operate them as tax havens. Some produce usable food, sell organic produce at the farmer's market as a way to supplement income. Other's grow on a come-what-may basis. Whatever the reason, these hobby farms are nearly a dime-a-dozen where I come from. Every now and then, though, there is a diamond in the rough, a real gem among the many hobby farms that dot the region between the Ozarks and the Arkansas river valley.

On Saturday, I visited a gem.

Wild Things Farm is the brain child of a doctor from Fort Smith, or so the story goes. It's a sprawling farm situated just across the Arkansas state line. With two ponds, a handful of alpaca, several variety of goats, two pigs, a peacock, and a partridge in a pear tree, Wild Things is a place for the heart to sing. (Sorry about that musical reference; I just had to.)

Open to the public, the farm has space for little boys to roam, and ways to put them to work. There are picking fields and over-sized buckets for filling. The green beans and blueberries are in season, so on Saturday, my parents and I took the boys to earn their keep.

[tweetherder]No tour of Wild Things is complete without a visit to the yelling goat.[/tweetherder] The yelling goat? See for yourself.

My father and I stood by the fence, laughing like school-children at the goat who bleated as if he were passing a kidney stone. I could have watched the old boy all day long.

After Titus manage a finger-nip from a baby goat, we loaded up the carts and moved to the fields. The boys started in the green bean fields, where Jude gleaned no less than a five gallon bucket of produce. The truth is, though, little boys are less excited about the prospect of green beans, and would rather pick bushels of blueberries for cobbler making. So, we loaded up the cart and made our ways to the blueberry bushes.

Titus is one heck of a blueberry picker. Fact is, he's one heck of a greenberry picker, too. I walked beside him in the field, he picking the unripened blueberries and asking me "this one daddy?" I laughed. "No son; don't pick the green ones," I told him. He'd pick one that was a darker shade of green and we'd laugh again.

We picked until we heard the thunder rumbling over the plains. A gully washer was sweeping in from the west, and so our blueberry picking was cut short. Excluding Titus' green berries, I suppose we gleaned about a pint.

We took our produce to the weigh station at the farm store, and said goodbye to Wild Things Farm. The boys mocked the agitated goat as we pulled down the drive, bleated in the back seat like they were passing their own kidney stones.

It was a good day.

III.

There is something about a farm and a boy, and if I could quite put my finger on it, I suppose I would. The open spaces, the smell of dirt and dung, the nearness of nature--it all seems so simple, perhaps intuitive. I reckon that was the sense my grandfather was hoping to regain after the wars--both World War II, and the war of the marketplace. I wonder whether he was trying to find his way back to the root of things.

I'm not a gentleman farmer, have no plot of land of which to speak. I want my children to experience this simplicity, though, to see a world that's less digital, one that bleats, and nips the fingers, and sounds like thunder moving across the plain of the River Valley. I want them to pick fresh produce, to see the connection between the dirt, the vine, and our dinner table. I want them to see the world as a sanctuary, creation as an analog for the Word of creation.

Perhaps you think this to be un-nuanced or naive, a dim-witted city-slicker's hope. Perhaps the farm is not as romantic as all of this. But on Saturday, we spent a few hours living the simpler life.

And it was good.

Home Behind the Sun and an Analog Resistance (Part II)

There is an American Sycamore in my backyard. Its canopy was raised in the early years of its growth so that all its energy was directed upward. It is an adult now, a hulking beast of a tree whose lowest arms shoot from its body thick as tree stumps. Its broad leaves are like small veined fans, and they catch the wind and swoosh what might be praise if you listen closely. This is my Father’s house. I am a child in something brilliant.

In the early evening I sat under the arms of that tree with a newish piece of spiritual literature. It was a preacher’s book, straightforward and without nuance. The metaphors were stripped to the bare minimum and otherwise, only instruction remained. “This is how we must now live!” it exclaimed. It lumbered along, offering wisdom—no doubt—without art and beauty. The work sought less to persuade and more to instruct me in the ways of quitting stupidity.

The book in itself had been well received, and don't get me wrong, it contains more than few good words. I remember, though, its release day, the way the machine spun up. (You know the machine; the one that demands content, content, content from them and dollars, dollars, dollars from us.) There was an effective marketing campaign, and the author made all the conference rounds. I’m sure it sold one-bazillion copies.

The veil was thin—the author was the guru and I was the student. There was no “us-ness,” in the pages. Instead, the author was reaching down to me, instructing me on the ways in which I could act better, or be better, or live more up to the Christian standard.

This brings me to the meat of the matter—I’m reading a great deal of dichotomized, us-and-them literature these days. We are the preachers and you are the congregants. We have the message, and you need to hear it. We start the movement, and you need to join it. The ease of social networking and mass marketing amplifies these messages.

Here is the irony, which is not lost on me: from time to time, I’m a part of this same dichotomizing machine. From time to time, I use the same dividing tactics in my writing. From time to time, I might claim that the yous need my language. I am, after all, only human. I have not learned the simple praise of the sycamores just yet.

*****

Author, preacher, mega-conference speaker: engage me with the us-ness of your humanity. I am weary of being force-fed answers. Engage me with art and metaphor. Engage me with good metaphor, mediocre metaphor, or bad metaphor; I’ll take whatever you have to give. Lead me to the water and let me drink; stop strapping me to the waterboard and suffocating me with Truth.

*****

I’ve been reading Home Behind the Sun: Connect With God in the Brilliance of the Everyday, by Timothy Willard and Jason Locy. I would be remiss if I did not tell you that Tim and I are friends, that we shared a memorable moment trout fishing on a firefly flecked evening that framed the spring-fed waters of the Spavinaw. Even still, and with as much unbiased fervor as I can muster, let me tell you something: this book is different. There is an us-ness in the pages.

When Tim and Jason released Home, the marketing machine spun up to a dull whisper. One evening the book wasn’t there. The next it was. It was that simple. There was very little fanfare, and aside from the glowing reviews from astute preview readers; Willard’s and Locy’s sermons were not trumpeted in the temples to whet our appetites. This, I think, was the most appropriate way to release Home.

Home reminds us that the beauty of God can be found in the everyday life of the working class, the proletariat. God is for us the people. He is found by the mechanic in the garage, the father who dallied about with women for years before finding grace, the NFL player who found comfort in his child’s death. God is found in a winter’s sunrise, in the cup of coffee at the local truck stop diner, in the meadows of Yosemite. God is manifest in the extension of forgiveness to our neighbor, in the dancing of our children. God is here, in this one world, amidst us. He is delivering messages of his Brilliance.

The Brilliance exists for us, for we-the-people. It is outside of marketing machines, and us-versus-them ministry. It is outside the mega-movements, the corporate structures, the Jesus machine. It is outside of the academy and the pseudo-academy. It is a message that exists outside of digital platforms and marketing machines. It is in the coffee shops, the garage, the bedroom. The Brilliance transmits a populist message—Christ is for the normal, everday, working-class Christian.

Engaging the Brilliance is a form of analog resistance.

*****

Now, do not get me wrong. I hope Willard and Locy ride the speaker circuit. I hope they make use of the machine, the digital frameworks, the mega-church podiums. I hope that their words gather the momentum worthy of them. After all, the machine itself is not bad. It is a good and worthy tool, especially if the author or preacher has a God-word to delivery. (Simply put, the machine simply is.)

I hope, though, that as they make the rounds, the blog tours, as their book is reviewed, that Home continues to point to an eternal truth.

God created this world in its Brilliance. He created the sycamore, the Spavinaw, the family for us. God created this world for the people. And we-the-people are capable of deciphering this brilliance if we’ll open our eyes and take a gander. We the people are capable because God made himself “with us,” Emmanuel.

Pick up a copy of Home Behind the Sun. Remember the God that is for us, the people.

Home Behind the Sun and an Analog Resistance (Part I)

Saturday, I saw the Brilliance. In my thirties, I've seen how the best of us--even the very best of the good ones--find ourselves at the crossroads of quandary. The world can be a brutal and dark place, can't it? There are wars and rumors of wars, turmoil and rumors of turmoil. Children are objectified, hyper-sexualized for profit. The vestiges of our egocentric culture press in, distract us, inflate pride in spaces like Facebook and Twitter. Children grow sick. Spouses have affairs. Jobs come and go. Good men are stripped from the earth too soon. And these things--these ways in which the world comes up shadows--can mess with faith of any believer. They distract us, make us believe that there is too much darkness.

In the shadows of life, is there any light of God?

This weekend, I packed the car with fishing rod, a hammock, a brown-bag lunch, and a copy of Home Behind the Sun. I pulled from the driveway, headed toward the tailwaters of Beaver Lake, the sanctuary first created by God in the seven days of Genesis, and later augmented by the Corps of Engineers in 1966.  The tailwaters are a refuge of sorts...

Continue reading about the Brilliance at Amber's.

*Photo by Mike Rusch.

On the Reason for Poetry (And the Analog Resistance)

April is National Poetry month. (Did you know there was such a thing?) To celebrate, I've asked some friends to join me in answering the question, "Why Poetry?" (Next week's piece, for instance, will be by the lovely and talented Hilary Sherratt). I hope you'll join us in the conversation. And if you say you aren't the "poetry type?" Give it a go this month. See how it feels.

*****

Aunt Mary died of eating twelve red peppers after a hard days work. The doctor said it was her high blood pressure finished her.

~John Ciardi

1.

I sat in the rustic pew on my front porch, a copy of Selected Poems:John Ciardi cracked to the poem "Aunt Mary." The pew was a reclaimed piece, salvaged by my mother from some going-out-of-church sale in northern Louisiana. I'd salvaged the verses from a local used bookstore in the Ozarks, reclaimed the piece and gave it a home between the works of Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry.

It was a quiet evening, one in which the first warm winds of April were sweeping down the lane. The birds hopped from branch to branch, the joy of Spring in their songs. Squirrels chased each other through the muddy front yard, through the tender grass shooting from winter's dead zones. I pinched the pages between thumb and forefinger; there is nothing quite like the yellowing leaves of a good book of poetry, the rough-fibered, tactile, analog pages.

It could have been any poem, really. But it wasn't. It was this work, "Aunt Mary," about the writer's aunt who'd passed into the next world on the flames of twelve red peppers. Mary was a woman who "loved us till we screamed," who was in the family of the broken,

"in which one dies of twelve red peppers, one has too many children, one a boy friend, two are out of work, and one is yowling for one (offstage) to open the bathroom door."

There is a truth about family in the verse. I sense it, but it hides beneath the surface.

2.

It is April the 1st, and the dust has barely settled on last week's discussion regarding whether same-sex couples should or should not be employed by World Vision, a entity which, as best as I can tell, has a singular non-profit purposes--care for the impoverished. Just days ago, this was the issue du jour. World Vision's hiring policies were in question, and the debate took to the hallowed halls of the internet. We all gathered there, there, the family, some of us watching as others debated with humility, and still others--the championed prize-fighters in the room--slung wholesale accusations across the aisle. One side accused the other of being Un-orthodox (a idea without definition), and their equal opposites accused the more Orthodox of being unloving (an ideal without definition).

Nuance be damned.

I watched as one sat yowling for another (offstage) to open the bathroom door. The one behind the door yowled back.

3.

Why poetry? (And for today, let's relegate this question to "why read poetry?") This is the grand question.

Many have an affinity for poetry, though they'd likely not recognize it as such. In high school, did you roll the windows down, let the wind blow through your hair as you screamed every word to "Smells Like Teen Spirit?" Did you make mix-tapes for your boyfriend? Did you scrawl self-angsty lines in a fifty cent notebook? Perhaps you didn't, but I did (though you may substitute "Smells Like Teen Spirit," for "The Love of God," because I was a good Baptist boy).

In poetry, I've always found the artistic medium that gives the freedom to better understand the world. Good poetry conveys layers of meaning and nuance, unpacks truths in surprising and understated ways. Good poetry is like a diamond, its many facets drawing the reader into the mystery at its heart. It entices me, makes me dig into its language for meaning.

I am a word-miner, and poetry is the mineshaft. It's why I read. I hope to find the grand golden nugget one day. I know it's there somewhere.

4.

On April the 1st, I sat with the lines of John Ciardi, he mourning the loss of his utterly human aunt. I rubbed the pages between my fingers as I read the closing lines,

...At once I wept Aunt Mary with a real tear, forgiving all her love, and its stupidities, in the palm of God. Or on a ledge of time. Or in the eye of the blasting sun. Or tightroped on a theorem. --Let every man choose his own persuasion, I pray the tear she taught me of us all.

I wept Aunt Mary too, and all the very real lovers of this world and of God who are only doing the best they know how, who are only espousing their best understandings of mysteries.

There was no comment section at the bottom of the poem, no way to tweet the verse to the rest of God's green earth, or to spout an opinion about it. There was only me, the poem, the internal weeping, the birds, the squirrels, and the pew. There was only a prayer for all of us, the yowling children. There was only the understanding that we're all here together, reflections in this mirror dimly. There was the sense that unfolding the nuance of words can only be achieved by this sort of Analog Resistance.

This is why I read poetry. It is a sanctuary from the myriad cacophonous violences that occupy this mainframe world.

The Luxurious Stream of Conciousness

I've been breathing the analog air again. There's something about the dust particles and wafting scents that linger on an Ozark breeze; it burns the lungs just right. Last night I smelled the wet metallic pungence of rain soaked asphalt, it mingling with sugar-sweet honeysuckle and the souring, decaying skunk that didn't quite make it from one side of the road to the next. It was the perfume of Hartman Avenue, a veritable odoriferous feast for Lucy, the long-legged Porkie (what do you get when you cross a Pyrenees and a Yorkie?) at the end of my leash. The juxtapositions of life can be both acrid and sweet in one whiff. Isn't it grand?

Earlier in the day, I had purchased an organic, fair-trade chocolate bar that boasted a hint of lavender and crystallized blueberry bits. It was yuppie chocolate, the kind you eat square by square while listening to old records of Simon and Garfunkel.  I peeled apart the wrapper and broke off a square. It was as smooth as the satin edges of a baby blanket, and nearly as soothing. There are some indulgences that seem like a betrayal of sorts, a reminder that I'll most likely always be willing to negotiate my cares for the price of a nice piece of chocolate. This was, unfortunately, one such indulgence. But even so, I'm not afraid to admit it--it was a right-good piece of chocolate.

Which reminds me.

While Lucy was looking for a proper place to tend to her business, I set to wondering whether my avatar-self (the online version of me, see) and my analog-self (the chocolate eating me) would get along rather well, or whether they'd claim friendship only in passing conversation, small talk, or over evening cocktails. I wondered whether the Twitter me would name-drop the real me, whether he'd quote me and with how much frequency. I reckoned my analog-self might find my avatar-self a bit pompous at times, or perhaps myopic. On the flip-side, my avatar-self might rightly question whether my analog-self was on the narrow road, or whether he'd be fit enough to squeeze through a very narrow gate.

Am I the only split-personality on the internet?

Am I the only one who carefully crafts the best version of self?

Jesus said to come unto him "ye that labor and are heavy laden." That's what he said. I guess I fall into that latter category. I guess that more than a few of you do, too. The cares of the world--whether digital, analog, or otherwise--create dichotomies. The dichotomies make me so tired.

Personality fission--the cares divide.

Bone from marrow--the cares divide.

There are, however, ways to re-harmonize self to self, analog to digital, hypocrite to healed. There are prescriptions for remembering who you are and why you're here, for dragging your weary and heavy-laden self to power of the gospel: lavender and blueberries; the musk of the old family bible; a quiet walk with Lucy in the katydid summer; prayer; scripture.

There is no discovery apart from respite, I think. There is no respite apart from minor indulgences, I think. There are no minor indulgences apart from grace, I think. And grace, I reckon, is the most luxurious of indulgences.