Sunday, January 31, 2010

Week Ten: Vibrant Amish Farms on My Way Home from Church Today

A sabbatical practice: I drive to Michigan one way and drive home another. There are so many beautiful roads, rivers, lakes, small towns, farms, fields and forests between home and church or home and Three Rivers or home and Marcellus. These are "eye candy" for me.

Today I drove to church on the South River Road to Constantine out of Mottville. So on the way home I took the Centreville Constantine Road across bridge over the tributary of the St. Joe River and went south to White Pigeon on the Kalamazoo Road. From there I headed through some lake country: Fish Lake, Stone Lake, and a jog over to Hunter Lake. (I wonder who is in those ice fishing houses…) South of Hunter Lake are low rolling hills. And when the land becomes flat again on County Road 43 going south, I realize I am in the heart of Amish farmland.

I confess that when I drive my eye is often drawn to images that make dramatic photos because of line, shadow or design. Old barns capture my eye for this reason. The wood is warn to sunbleached shades of gray. The slats are no longer tight or symmetrical. Some barns lean precariously. And some disappear entirely in the course of five years of driving back and forth.

I am also a bit ashamed to say that there is something kind of “romantic” about an old abandoned barn. By that I mean it evokes in me a soulful longing. Why has this barn been abandoned? When did this farm last thrive? Was this one of the losses of the farm crisis of the 1980’s? And if so, will this land ever be farmed again? Will animals or hay ever inhabit this barn?

Today it struck me as I passed out of lake country that the Amish farms are a bold contrast. Rather than shrinking on their land, they are expanding. The houses spread from side to side with pieced together additions, some dadi-houses for aging parents and grandparents, as generations inhabit this farm. The walls of homes and barns and outbuildings are shining white with fresh paint. The windmill turns. A few buggies sit in the yard. Horses graze. Fields are surrounded by protective fences. And entrepreneurial signs abound, such as Small Engine Repair or Shady Ridge Weavers or Yoder Popcorn or Bontrager Organic and Local Products.

It has been thirty three years since I moved to Elkhart County. I have driven by Amish homes hundreds of times. I have admired their gardens, bordered in cock’s combs and flowering cabbage. Yet I have only been in an Amish home three times in all those years.

The first was for the rehearsal dinner for a wedding of a friend from church.

The second was an introduction to Amish singing on a snowy, snowy dark night in January. Arrangements were made for this field trip visit of our AMBS Anabaptist History and Theology class through Mary Oyer.

The third visit was part of a colloquium on “focal practices,” or “What do faith and technology have to do with one another.” It strikes me that these were all contrived and limited “we are looking at you” situations.

But if I, if we, are interested in vibrant rural communities, surely our Amish neighbors, peace church cousins, could be our conversation partners. The table conversation at my last visit was about how the farm land was being divided and divided for all the growing families of the Amish. In addition we talked about cooking and quilting and "bra parties" a la Tupperware style sales. It was delightful!

But how would I make an Amish friend? How could our two cultures engage in cross cultural conversation? How could we share this land, this community, in new ways?

Ah! Arlene Bontrager! In this pondering it dawned on me. Here is my opening. Arlene and Alan have a large booth at the Goshen Farmers’ Market. It is right across from Dale and Jo’s corner of vegetables and flowers from White Yarrow Farm. I have often talked with Arlene. Last summer she told me she was craving pie, and I promised that someday I would make her one. I had every intention! But I did not keep that promise in 2009. Maybe this summer, after returning from my visits to Costa Rican farmers, we could begin a coffee and pie friendship and talk about land and community.

I wonder: Do you have any Amish friends?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Week Nine: What could be more vibrant?

I am driving west on US 20 on Thursday afternoon. I turn right on our road, County Road 23. As I round the corner blazing color catches my eye. To my left, right on the corner of these two roads, is a stunning peacock framed in pure white snow. Can you imagine! I stop my truck right there.

The peacock is an unvelievable combination of color and grace. It's bright peacock blue head and neck are irridescent in the light. It wears a gracefully curved crown of topnotch feathers, bending forward toward its beak and framing its black face and white eye patch. It's back is varigated yellow green smooth feathers. On each side are folded white and black bespeckled wings. The green yellow, black and white delicacies of feathers blend into its long, long, full tail of plumes that culminate in rainbow eyes of chartreuse green, rimming orange and eyes of bright yellow, gracefully trailing a good three feet beyond its body on the white, white snow. This magnficent creature just stands and looks at me. I hold my breath. The I quickly regret not packing my camera for the day.

Ah! Home is one mile from here. I decide to step on the gas. I scoot home, grab my camera, and dash to the corner, parking my truck just around the curve on the side of 20. But where is the peacock?

It is not nearly so vibrant where it hides now, amid the low hanging branches of the brush about ten feet from the road. How to get the best shot? I walk now from angle to angle. I stoop. I look for the angle of the sun. I move a bit closer, and a bit closer as the nervous peacock chicken walks away, further into the shadoes of the brush. One shot. Rotten. Nmber two. A bit better. Two more steps nearer I slowly creep and then the peacock takes flight. I see it spread its wings and trail its beautiful tail as it flies deeper into the brushy wood and nearer to frozen wetland. Shucks! I wanted to catch it! I wanted a good photo.

But a new layer of awareness comes in. My adrenaline begins to abate. Where did this peacock come from? Can it survive in the snow and ice? And how could it find its way home? Most importantly, have I contributed to its demise by hunting it with my lens, with my need to "catch it" so I could proudly share its beauty with you? Bounty hunter! Did I think more about love for ME or love for this neighbor?

I remember: Once years ago, when we first moved to this road, I saw another spectacle at this corner. It was early spring. The small wetland to the north of the road was just starting to green. And there, standing in the shallows, was a stunning white egret! It was tall, graceful, and unlike any other bird I had ever seen in this place. Had some storm driven it off course? Could it survive here, probably too far north and too cold? How could it find its way home? I never had a photo of this white sentry of a bird. I think that has preserved is preciousness and mystique.

For years in the spring I would glance at this wetland, hoping to see an egret once more.

Could I have not let this peacock be -- a photo of the mind and heart?

For days, since Thursday, I search the corner, the brush, the woods and the frozen wetland for a sign of the peacock. Now I want to save it! Randy says that coyotes have surely found it by now. Ah! Ah! Spectacular, vibrant beauty. Gift. Gone. Yet held quite fully and vividly in the mind, if not in the photo.

One bird can do so much. And one photographer.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Week Eight: Sabbath on Sunday 17 January

Sabbath this day begins before dawn. I sit with my sermon, eat cheese and drink coffee and pray.

On my way to church, five miles from home, I realize I left the sabbath candles at home. I turn back.

Now I can listen to the morning news on NPR as dawn lightens the road, and news burdens the heart: Haiti and heartbreak.
"Come and fill our hearts with your peace" we sing together.
And we begin to move between the space of grief and the space of Vibrant Rural Sabbatical. This is a sabbath container, I believe, for being present to one another and to God, being present to joy and horror, for the reception of a new grandchild and the aching memory of a son gone. We sit, sing, listen, and pray. And God is here in this little church in the country.

Sabbath lunch: four teen women join me at Camino Real for Mexican food and shy conversation and hard questions.

Sabbath afternoon: birthday celebration with friends in Marcellus who need, I believe, reasons just to be together.

As I drive home the sun is setting. This sabbath has gone from sunrise to sunset. I see two bent snow people looking at the sunset on the Tri-Lakes Road. They have partly melted in the sun, but they still lean on the shaky walking sticks. They aren't going anywhere.

I am going home. Home. At the end of a sabbath day with my community of faith and friends, being home alone in silence and solitude is the sabbath I now crave. This day has been a gift. May it give me the strength to do my part to birth life, vibrancy, in the week ahead.

Week Seven: Sunday, 10 January

On the inside looking out.

Been sick since New Year's Eve. Waves of fever, chills, no appetite, itchy hands and feet, rashy arms and legs. This has not felt vibrant.

Today I look out the window as the sun sets. I have been looking through photos from Cambodia, finally. Ah, yes, I can remember the wonder of wandering through another culture, another world.

I don't get sick like this. Living in our house on County Road 23 out of eyesight of other houses, other people, rural life is isolating. As health returns I anticipate going out into the elements -- and the people -- once more.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Week Six: Memorial: Bryan Shelly

January 3, 2010

Last Sunday ended with a crushing blow. When it was dawn in Michigan the sun was setting in Phnom Penh. We were about to go out to dinner. And we received word of the suicide of Bryan Shelly. The world stopped.

So this Sunday an entire rural community reverberates with love and grief. The memorial for Bryan is at 1 pm in the high school gym. It is full. My whole congregation sits and sings together. We are following the guidance of Bryan’s parents, Mark and Kim, who want “something good to come out of this tragedy.” We hear of the beauty and belovedness of Bryan’s life. The gentleness and courage of his parents. His best friend, Ben, plays music on the piano and shares slides and film to honor his friend’s life.

Dave DeCou, the respected English teacher quotes the poem “No Man is an Island” by John Donne:

“Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”

There was no loud gong ringing in Marcellus this day. But there was an empty thud that sounded. It was the echo left in the space, the life, that Bryan left behind.

We are all diminished by the death of Bryan Shelly. So young. Talented. Full of promise. At the center of the senior class of seventy students at Marcellus High School. Yet in a hidden way we will never fully know, captured by depression and despair.

How is it that in one week such a tragedy seems to bring the hearts of this little community into full compassion and care? Vibrancy, hearts fully alive with love and grief, every parents fear, every student’s nightmare, is alive in this gym.

It is like Christmas. Are we only capable of being seasonally awake? Or will this great tragedy indeed continue to vibrate into something more? A deeper hope.

Week Five: Sunday near Christmas -- December 27

December 27, 2009

We went to the village where Ming lives. She was the housekeeper for Daniel and Kristin’s friends from Australia. And her niece, GumLee, was ready to ride along with us to go home to visit for the day along with the baby she was caring for and her friend. We drove in our rented car for an hour or so, out of the city and into the dry, dry countryside. We came to the blue gate in front of the blue house on tall posts that was Ming’s.

The vibrancy here spun around Kristin and Ming. Ming shared tears of joy, and sorrow. With her ability to understand Khmer, Kristin received Ming’s worries about her daughter who is ill and living in Viet Nam. She smiled when Ming showed huge baskets of rice, just harvested by Ming alone, since she is a widow. Kristin helped us negotiate where to sit, knowing that my old back would not handle sitting cross legged on the eating platform for a whole meal. Kristin did not need to say much. Her voice quiet, she nodded, smiled, made small moan. And we were connected. Daniel, with grace, took photos and smiled at small children.

Such hospitality! Though our Phnom Penh driver seemed a bit apologetic of the plastic chairs we were offered, and was quick to try to brush them off, my sense was of being treated as a honored guests. Ming managed the several generations of women and girls who were going in and out of her kitchen as they brought beautiful platter after platter – of beef and vegetables, fish soup, rice, white with black speckled dragon fruit and deep orange papaya. We were the central event in the life of this village of women and children, and though I could not speak a word, showing off babies, being given the tour of each woman’s home, and watching a special dish being prepared were all known rituals for rural visiting. The vibrant faces glow from the photos and in the memory of my heart.

Week Four: Fourth Sunday of Advent

December 20, 2009

Rural vibrancy’s soulmate/shadow must be urban vibrancy. There is a whole urban universe below this third floor balcony where my son, Daniel, and his wife, Kristin, live in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. On my first full day here, I am intrigued by the household across the way. Noon is a siesta kind of hour here – so after watching the morning practices – washing and hanging out clothes, eating on the porch, watering plants by tossing water from a bowl over all the leaves, brushing hair, sweeping – now I look out at noon and see no humans at all for a quiet stretch. There are also no vendors on the street after a constant stream beginning at dawn. There have been every kind of cart, identified by its own unique squeaker or recorded message. They pick up recycling, sell roasted eggs or whole coconuts, vegetables or bread.

But then the HELLO cart comes down the street for a ten minute mini-party below. I have to ask Daniel what white material is being scooped by the gloved hands of the vendor (hidden by the umbrella). It is clearly a small child magnet. Snow cone I think we would call it.

This little mid-street community, shelter by HELLO, seems a vibrant seed and vine of this neighborhood – as lovely as the purple orchid that hangs blooming from the balcony below me.

I take my siesta this Sunday to read, photograph, pray – to delight in this new place with its sights and sounds. And I write this to you.