LOCAL VIEW –Sixty Longest Days–

I always am struck by the abruptly early daybreaks of May in a slightly absurd way. I feel I am seeing it for the first time. This is absurd because I am sixty-six years old, and logic tells me I have seen it many times before. But perhaps it is made wonderful because northern winters are so lasting, and their nights are so long, and their sunrises are so late, that one especially appreciates the sun so suddenly arising so early. At northern latitudes days get longer with astonishing speed; one week you are driving to work with your headlights on, and a week later you don’t need to turn them on. The transformation is so abrupt that it is hard to be jaded about it. Even an old codger like myself displays a little bit of the wonder children have every day all year.

If your livelihood has anything to do with vegetation, (formerly this involved farming, but now it tends to involve being a “landscaper” and cutting grass), then, hand in hand with the wonder of the abruptly longer days, one is hit by a frenzy, because the same frenzy is felt by vegetation.

Northern plants are very wise, considering they lack brains. They know the growing season is short, and their growth is explosive. Even a non-native plant, transplanted north, demonstrates explosive growth. I once knew a oil worker who had the whim to grow cabbage on the north slope of Alaska. He scraped together a small square of thawed muck from a section of permafrost, planted some cabbage seeds, and then was astounded by how swiftly he had full heads of cabbages. Cabbage is not native to Alaska, but it apparently does well when the sun shines 24 hours a day.

Northern people who deal with plants are made frenetic because they have to deal with frenetic plants. I call it “Farmers Frenzy”, though I have seen it in rich ladies who want to grow roses. It is a state of mind between ordinary ambition and total panic. The northern sunshine seems to state, “Plant now, or forever hold your peace.”

Back in my days as a drifter I once met a fellow-drifter, an old Kansas farmer who, most of the year, was a garrulous old coot who told great tales but preferred the retirement of being a bum to the hard work of farming.

The old farmer deserves more than this synopsis, and I hope to someday write a longer version of this brief biography: He was a fellow who had paid his dues. He had done so in two ways. First, he grew up during the Dust Bowl, part of a tough, tenacious farming-family that refused to let the bank foreclose on their land. Then, as his brothers all gained glory by going off to fight in World War Two, he got stuck back on the farm in Kansas, growing the food that fed the nation. Somewhat accidentally, he made a fortune, but I think he was a little ashamed of making money as his brothers fought fascism. In any case, once his six children were raised, he lost interest in growing wheat, and became a drifter. Likely he was a cause of concern to his family, but he was a blessing to me, because he told the truth about what the Dust Bowl was like. (The media, in calling our current times “the hottest ever”, obviously never took the time to interview such farmers, or to study the temperature records of the 1930’s.)

I knew the fellow for roughly 40 months, and for the most part he was very disinterested in farming, beyond farming being a subject for his reminiscences. In the present tense, he was interested in his retirement. But I did witness him during three springs, and each spring, against his will (it seemed to me) he was hit by Farmer Frenzy. In a situation where, as a drifter, he had no tractor, no seed, and no land, he paced and fretted midst a peculiar urgency, his eyes roaming over the landscape in a hungering way.

For example, on one occasion I saw the old coot, about five-foot-five, take a bunch of far larger Navajo to task. Quite out of the blue he berated their sloth, like a sergeant jawing privates, and stated they should get off their butts and start plowing up some nearby desert sand and plant wheat. The Navajo laughed at him, stating the sand was so dry it couldn’t grow cactus, but he stated the sand was wetter than the dust his family had raised wheat upon in Kansas, during the Dust Bowl, and he then went on to state some rude things about the industry of the Navajo. I cringed, and judged the Kansas fellow’s life-expectancy would be swiftly shortened, but rather than killing the old farmer, the Navajo found him entertaining.

What I took from this experience is that “Farmer Frenzy” is a very real thing, but a thing which one needs to take pains to tame.

On the other hand, “Farmer Frenzy” can be a good thing. It produced the wheat, during World War Two, that defeated Hitler. Yes, guns were important, and troops were important, but if those troops were not fed the guns would have been useless. Kansas farmers deserve credit. Maybe even a monument.

Now I am the age that old farmer was, when I met him on the roadside in 1985, and I remember him as I see myself now experiencing a touch of Farmer Frenzy.

 

       DOUBLE-SONNET: LONGEST DAYS

The sixty longest days are like treasure
Slipping through my fingers. My greed can’t grip
These mercies no man’s muscles can measure
With his farming, though he resolves to whip
Every bean and radish to suck up sunshine,
To command corn to bask in every ray,
Demand bumpers make reaping a fun time,
And stays awake all hours of each long day,
And scorns vacations, snubs all thought of leisure,
Sternly seeks to seize the moment’s value;
To with miser-fingers fondle treasure;
To tell the summer, “I’ll corral you”,
Too soon it passes, like lovely lasses
Getting old, and makes us wind up asses.

But this year I’ll be different. I’ll work
As hard in the hot summer days, but I’ll
Not be such a crab, nor be such a jerk,
And I’ll greet every ache with a smile.
I’ll not care so much about the weighed results
Nor rue the way time goes scooting by.
Even if my harvest is but insults
I’ll give my new philosophy a try.
You see, it seems to me I’ve been too prone
To seeing harvest as a sort of cement.
I wished to freeze joy, make her be my own,
But then I groaned and wondered where joy went.
Now I’m content to watch summer slip by.
My days too grow short. Where joy goes, go I.

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THE DENT THAT PAID THE RENT

Perhaps it is because I’m getting old, and the closest I get to adventure is paying my taxes, or having some body-part such as a tooth or kidney removed, that I have developed a strange longing for the trouble I used to get into as a young man. Back then, (especially just after various women had the good sense to not marry me), I had no reason to settle down, and was able to take despair (and freedom from responsibility) and use it to become a sort of desparado.

Because I liked to write, I was a sort of prissy desparado, as desparadoes go, but there can be no denying I lived life on the edge, and occasionally fell off.  I was very downwardly mobile, and not the sort of person many would think was a “good prospect”, and one thing I learned was how badly one can want love. I was too proud too beg, and therefore seldom saw the human charity of spare change clinking into my cap, and instead expected nothing but shunning from my fellow man. To win a smile from someone made my day. But, even when I didn’t deserve a smile, and none were forthcoming from my fellow man, I had a sense God was with me.

Not that I didn’t grumble, but if you read the poetry (psalms) of King David you see he too grumbled a fair amount. I believe such grumbling counts as prayer, and also believe such prayer is answered. True, when you are in a run of bad luck, cruising for a bruising in a way where you deserve your bruises, you don’t catch many breaks. If you sow thistles you will reap a crop of thorns, and therefore your life may not look like an answered prayer. But when you are actually in those shoes the smallest thing can be a blessing, like a warm beam of sunshine finding its way through storm clouds to your shoulders.

That is what I want to capture, if I write about my days as a drifter. But I recognize a danger, as I go through my notes and play with rough drafts. The danger is I may create a “pity-party”, or a smudge of resentment, or even glorify something I should be a little embarrassed about. I want to avoid all that, and instead to show that there was truly glory in the hardship, but it sure wasn’t me. It was a sense that even when life is at its loneliest, you do not walk alone.

Jesus actually stated he did not come for people who had their act together. He came for the people down on their luck, and perhaps that is why the people down on their luck seem to meet Him more than millionaires.  (Also perhaps that is why some millionaires become so decadent, so they too can fall into the gutter and discover the kindness of God.)

Not that I’m in any hurry to get back to the gutter. What I desire is the sense of glory that strangely goes along with having nothing, perhaps because one inadvertently and unintentionally is renouncing the world,  “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”

Last summer I wearied of a church that seemed dulled by complacency. That church seemed a place where no one had any problems, (or pretended that.) Outside its doors there was a serious drug problem, but people didn’t really want “that sort” coming in the doors. Church was a hide-out, a safe sanctuary where people escaped such problems. So I headed out the doors, more interested in places where people had problems, and were facing the issues of “detox” and “rehab” (two words that were not in the English dictionary not all that long ago.)

People who go through “detox” and “rehab” face something called “recidivism”, which in the old days we called “backsliding” or “falling off the wagon.”   In fact some addicts and drunkards use shelters and halfway houses as a way to get back in shape, to regain their health so they can go on another bender. This is very discouraging to those who want to help people escape addiction and become “useful members of society.” However it was noticed that the recidivism rate was much lower at halfway houses that employed God. This is discouraging to atheists. In fact I recently heard a person joke, “The only people who are Christians are perverts, addicts, and Republicans.”  God may have gotten a chuckle out of that, but cynicism doesn’t seem to stop Him.

In any case, I far prefer going to a church full of street people,  who are going through hard times and are down on their luck. They may not wear Sunday suits, nor look like people whose prayers are answered, but they know what I was talking about when I wrote, “the smallest thing can be a blessing, like a warm beam of sunshine finding its way through storm clouds to your shoulders.” Their faces light up, as they talk of mercies from lives few envy.

You hear unexpected bits of wisdom, as you listen. For example, In my life I’ve met people who prayed for something, drummed their fingers impatiently, and then, when the prayer was not answered, stated it was irrefutable proof God does not exist. So I expect such a response from people. Yet I recently heard a person explain the phenomenon roughly like this, “It had been a long, long time since I talked to God. He really liked it when I came back, but He knew, if He answered my prayer, I’d forget all about Him in a big hurry, all over again.  So He kept me talking.”

Another recovering addict told a tale that made me chuckle. He had been working very hard to arise from the ashes and get his life back on track, but his financial situation was in complete ruins, and various bill-collectors were in no mood to be merciful. He (with his wife’s support), had done all the right things, taking more than one embarrassing, menial job and going to the bill-collectors and attempting to arrange payment plans to get back on track, but, even working two jobs, the pay wasn’t enough. Therefore he pushed himself further, and attempted to get a good job despite his criminal record, honestly explaining his situation and offering to take drug tests. He deemed it an example of God’s mercy shining through a human being when he actually landed a good job, for twice as much pay as he had ever earned before, but the job would not start for two weeks and then he’d have to go two weeks before he got his first check. That was too long for his landlord to wait. Although the recovering addict and his wife had paid the current rent he still owed back rent from months before, and had only managed to make a few ten and twenty dollar payments on that back rent, and still owed $1,200.00. The landlord had been patient for months, and served an eviction notice: “Pay up in ten days or move out.”

This dropped the recovering addict to his knees, but as he was praying he heard a crash outside. The old man next door had backed into his wife’s car,  and she had no insurance, nor the money to fix it. The former addict fought off the temptation to use the misfortune as an excuse to get high, and bent the fender back out enough for his wife to use the car. Then he went to work at his two menial jobs, wondering where his wife and he were going to move, as he awaited the start of his better job.

After hanging on in this agonized manner for the ten allotted days his landlord had given him to come up with the rent, the old man next door came up and handed him a check for $1,200. The neighbor did have insurance, and that was how much the insurance company had paid to repair the dent. But the man’s wife said, “The car drives just fine. Let’s use the money to pay the rent.”

And that is the tale of the dent that paid the rent.  It shows the mysterious ways in which God may answer prayers better than any sermon.