Sunday, April 26, 2015

Summer-fallow for the Soul

April 26, 2015

Dear Friends,

Spring in the mountain foothills is a capricious event. 

There have already been days when the thermometer reached seventy degrees. This morning is gray, however. Cold thin rain makes rivulets on the window panes and gently waters my new plants. The lilac by the kitchen window survived the snow, and lifts the gentle purple of its blooms eagerly into the rain.  Annie and I plan, however, to stay inside. It is cold, and despite its beauty, the day calls for shelter, a fire, and a book.

I continue to think about the odd dimensions that diminishment assumes in the new green of spring. This week triggered a memory from the farm-centered world of my childhood. 
Chemicals played a very small role in farming as my father and grandfather practiced the skill. Fertilizers and spray for weed control were being developed but were not yet available for general use. We had yet to experience their dangers or their advantages. 

However, in order to increase the productivity of a piece of land, farmers would periodically leave it fallow for a year. No crop would be planted; no weeds or volunteer plants would be permitted to grow on it. The ground lay quiet, unproductive, responsible only to absorb the sun, the rain, and endure the winter’s harsh cold.  

The last year before I left the farm, one Sunday afternoon in late spring I walked with my father across a field that he was holding fallow that year.

My father, typically, had a sharp eye out for emerging weeds and volunteer wheat. “This eighty needs working already,” he said. 

After some thought he added, “Spring came early this year. The first cutting of alfalfa is already coming on. The corn has to be worked before harvest, and it looks like the wheat will ripen early this year.”

We walked in silence for some distance, then I asked, pragmatically, “Do you think that summer-fallowing pays economic dividends? This ground won’t produce anything that you can market this year, but you’ll have the expense of working the ground just the same.”

We walked back toward the truck. My father was quiet, thinking before he answered as was his habit. When we reached the truck, he paused and looked back over the field.

“Yes, in the long run, summer-fallowing pays, but you have to do it systematically, part of a long term plan. It’s not a one-time fix for over-cropped land.”

He paused, and then continued, somewhat self-conscious. “But there’s more than profit at stake, you know. Everything—including the ground—needs a Sabbath. You know this old eighty used to be tall grass prairie. Then somebody took a plow to it.  I like to think that this year while it’s resting, taking a Sabbath, the land remembers and hears again the wind in the grass.” 

Half-embarrassed by his vulnerability, he abruptly opened the truck door, and said brusquely, “We’d better get home. Be dark soon. And Sunday or not, the milking has to be done.”

After my condo “spring planting” was completed by my generous friends, I sat one evening thinking about my limited contribution to the gardening process. Then, unbidden, I found myself suddenly thinking about this week’s blog.

Perhaps diminishment carries something of the sabbath, of the resting process, I thought. Perhaps this is the time of summer-fallow for my soul so that in the next season in the Coming Kingdom World, I shall be rested and my strength replenished for joyful productive participation there.

Diminishment fosters sabbath, rest, and conservation. 

Some of us (thank you, N.T. Wright) anticipate the indescribable joy of productive life in the New Heaven and Earth where God will set all things right. For us, perhaps the aging process with its diminished productivity would be better viewed as summer-fallow for the soul.

My father was a farmer who hid deeply within the voice of an unrecognized poet. I remember vividly that image he shared, looking out over that fallow field, seeing the land resting and remembering the wind in the tall prairie grass. 

I wonder how God views this time in my life. Do you suppose that He means this to be a time of resting remembrance in which as my new plants grow in the spring rain, I know again at the same time the old sound of Kansas wind in the grass?

See you next week.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

How Much Space Does It Take to Grow Joy?

April 19, 2015

Dear Friends,

When T.S. Elliott wrote, “April is the cruelest month,” he was not making a weather report. A spring storm this week brought the line to mind, however. 

There has been snow with small winds—small, mean, thin winds that sneak cold fingers into the flower beds. Last night (again) I moved seedlings onto the patio and covered them, then lowered the sun screen to give some additional protection against the wind. I haven’t uncovered them yet this morning.  Am thinking that after I have finished this conversation with you, I’ll check the weather forecast. It may be necessary to move them into the house and set up temporary garden quarters on the kitchen table. 

Dealing with April requires living with messy alternatives at times.  If you come for coffee (tea?) this week, we will likely sit and talk at the dining room table. I have not altered my on-going practice of sitting with friends in the kitchen. However, in April the kitchen table is often pre-empted as an emergency shelter for seedlings. Elliott was accurate. April often demonstrates a callous disregard of both the young and the old and their needs for light and warmth.

Thinking about diminishment in April seems oddly incongruent. New life is struggling to become established, and shows everywhere despite April’s unpredictable acts of careless indifference. This is a time of new—and more—life. Still, I have been continuing to think this week about spring in a time of diminishment.  

My ability to participate in April garden life is clearly diminished. The impact of this diminishment is not poverty of experience, however, because, in part, I live in a community of faith-family people who share their resources with me. 

This week I experienced an additional small but spectacular epiphany. Tending a flat of seedlings can hold as much joy and shared emergent life as I experienced in my former large garden bounded by its old rock wall.

The power of diminishment to produce emotional poverty is a reality. The degree to which this power functions as a reality in my life, however, depends upon my understanding that reduction in scale and volume does not produce reduction in significance unless I choose for this to happen.

I remember the spring in my old garden that a large bed of tall yellow iris first bloomed. I had not grown such “tall fellows” before, and I had never seen iris whose color had that glorious yellow “look-at-me” brilliance. But this morning, while I remember them, space in my life for the experience of yellow iris has diminished and, in reality, has disappeared. 

Today, however, in the seedlings I am protecting on the back patio is a new hybrid salvia bred to thrive under adverse growing conditions. The adventure that lies ahead for me and the salvia is the challenge of the strip of ground between the walk and the garage wall (the garden catalogue labeled this spot the inferno strip). 

I’ve never grown this plant before. And when it blooms, I will know again something like I experienced that yellow-iris-spring.

The ability and willingness to celebrate life in all its forms is the wealth that holds emotional poverty at bay when diminishment occurs. I am grateful that there are many things in addition to tall yellow iris that bring joy to my heart.

Cherish the small things. They too carry life and hope.

See you next week. 



Sunday, April 12, 2015

Diminishment?--Well, It Depends

April 12, 2015

Dear Friends,

The idea of diminishment evokes a rush of anxiety in some people.  I have been thinking why that may be.

There is, of course, the influence of our consumer culture in which less at any level is anathema. For those who deeply embrace the culture’s world-view, any effort to think diminishment into a prosperity/growth paradigm becomes the proverbial foolishness of attempting to draw a square circle. 

However, I know people for whom diminishment is an uneasy subject, and they are not people who support the culture’s infatuation with increase. Consequently, I have wondered about the discomfort of this sensible-type person. What is happening here?

Part of the problem lies in the power of diminishment to trigger a descent into poverty. This poverty may be triggered in any or all of the areas in which we commonly divide our human experience. Diminishment may result in economic, social, emotional, physical, or spiritual ‘hard times’ as my grandfather would have phrased it. When we consider the potential of the diminishment process to coerce us into life in the Land of Not Enough, refusal to extend a warm welcome appears quite logical. 
On this glorious spring day (this will not surprise you) I abandoned my desk in favor of cane and a brief trip to the “garden,” those small spaces in which I tend flowers. 

I discovered that two of the tall lilies have survived my failure last fall to mulch them and protect them from winter cold. There are two buds in the big allium, and I found other interesting and hopeful signs of spring. However, when I bent over to clear away leaves and twigs from the latrias (two inches of green foliage!!) I also discovered serious further diminishment in my physical ability to weed and tend the plants I love.  

Gardening this year must be worked out in the Land of Not Enough Physical Strength. Recognizing this does not make me feel either pleased or blessed. I experience this individual diminishment keenly and as an unwelcome descent into personal poverty that I would avoid if I could. Before the aging process diminished both my strength and agility, I found that my soul was nourished by time spent on my knees weeding flower beds, the smell of spring earth in my nose, my hands dealing ruthlessly with weeds and tenderly with seedlings. 

That experience will not come again. There is sadness in this loss.

But I find myself, at the same time, amazingly cheerful in the face of this ‘hard time.’ The reason for this counterintuitive response does not lie in me, however (much as I wish that it did). I am able to be joyful in my diminishment because of the faith community in which I am living out this aging stage of life.

One day last week a young friend gave me the gift of several hours work in my garden. Tomorrow another young friend has committed her muscles and energy to “tending” my garden. So of course I am glad: this year too I will continue to experience my “garden,” smell warming earth, and hold tiny fragile roots in my hands. I am rich—rich beyond counting. But this is possible because in community my life does not depend on my personal resources alone.  

In our culture there are many people who choose to live unattached, relationally-minimal lives. Diminishment, with good reason, feels dangerous and destructive to these people. Those whose sense of identity rests primarily on a foundation of individuality, and whose sense of safety lies in distance and lack of connection, these people face diminishment with only those slender resources they themselves control. Depletion is dangerous. Loss can easily make them poor at levels of basic human needs.

It is sensible to look straight on at the unwelcome power of diminishment to trigger passage across the poverty line. But I do not think that it is wise to look at this fact apart from another context. While wisdom anticipates the inevitable process of loss, this depletion is a relative thing. There is an equally inevitable wealth that continues to flow into the lives of those who live connected in community even in times of diminishment.

Tomorrow again—as I did last week—I shall have a gardening-rich day. But in this stage of diminished strength, I know these days for what they are.

They are not made possible by my ability to inhibit the diminishment process nor to deny its reality. It is a gift out of another’s resources that erases the power of diminishment to make me poor. 

In my life I have placed a high priority on relationships, and have invested consciously, deliberately in the time, energy and attention that relationships require. That decision produced some very messy moments throughout my lifetime. However, it has resulted in a wealth that the diminishment of aging is unable to erode.

In my experience, I am discovering that diminishment is a formidable challenge. However, I do not think that diminishment as such need be resisted by every means possible. 

Nonetheless, I continue to find that the process can be harnessed to serve the choice of life only in the context of relationships and the discipline of growth in community.

Tend your relationships. 

You need them now, and, truth be told, you will find them essential as diminishment makes itself a growing presence in your life.

See you next week.