Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Boy I Watched Being Born Is A Married Man

Taking Care of Each Other

My Uncle Joe Bryer is sixty-three, and I almost never see him. When he and his new wife, Judy came north from Kentucky to visit his surviving siblings in early September this year, I took my mother down the hill to her sisters’ house to visit him with the collection of them – Uncle Joe, Uncle Doug, their spouses, and Aunt Alice. I really had not intended to stay, rather to go and come back to retrieve my mother, but they are my aunts and uncles after all, and this was a unique opportunity to “tune in” to how my mother’s family works and to hear stories that may be lost soon enough. So I stayed and listened and asked questions out of mere curiosity, and oh my -- was I surprised. You might say my world was rocked. As a result of just one phrase from my Uncle Joes’ mouth, I am finding myself reevaluating how I live and thinking new thoughts about how I might want to live.

At the end of one conversation, Uncle Joe said about he and his wife, “We take care of each other.” I asked him if something was wrong – I was thinking of there might be physical ailment that one of them suffered from, or perhaps they both had physical ailments than needed attention. “No,” he said puzzled. “What do you mean by ‘we take care of each other,’ ” I asked, just as puzzled. A slight touch of frustration came across his face, and the only concrete thing that came to his mind was the body massages that he gives to Judy every day. I listened more and deduced that taking care of each other means to them being in touch with what each other is thinking and feeling, each others’ wants and wishes, and not only caring about them, but also adjusting to make life gentle and pleasant for each other. The picture I got was of two people connected and attentive to one another, moving through life gently, and waiting for each other – an emotional aspect that I hadn’t witnessed much.

This, from a Bryer. Stories that I have heard from my mother all my life and my own observations of life in the Bryer clan are all about hard work, struggle, striving and surviving. A lot of it has been around survival, but not all. Aunt Alice, at 82+ goes at a pace that make most of us pant. She volunteers at the library, the welcome center, the used book store, walks with the neighbor and her dog, teaches kids at church, works for Mrs. Impey, and on and on. It’s hard to find her home; it’s hard to get an appointment to see her for more than ten minutes at a time. My own mother worked hard all her life. Other than a few picnics on a rock by the river, I have precious-few memories of my mother relaxing and enjoying life, or of being “taken care of.” She did a lot of taking care of other people, physically at least – everybody it seemed – but odd how it did not come back to her as a give-n-take. And I can’t remember anything between my parents that resembled the “taking care of each other” that Joe and Judy Bryer are becoming accustomed to, and that seems to be agreeing with them very well.

Patterns of behavior get imprinted into us as we grow up I believe, and it takes exposure to other ways of being and doing to undo what we have learned. I learned how to work, which is good, and I enjoy all kinds of work regardless of what category they fall in. The only kind of work that I can think of that I don’t enjoy is cleaning. But I like hanging around when we have to take the washing machine apart, and I like helping my cousin sort out our old knob and tube wiring, and I like roofing and cutting firewood, cooking and sewing. People tell me that I am independent, cheap-to-keep, and even needless and wantless. This is not all true. I don’t think of myself as independent at all. I am working mostly in my home, supporting my husband and his mission in life, taking care of my memory-challenged 80 year old mother, completely dependent financially. Emotionally I am interdependent with my husband, needing his love and needing to give him mine, and inwardly I revel in the relationships I have that are warm and deep, feeling more like a marshmallow inside rather than a strong, reliable tool. I have a need for love, touch, and attention. And there are some things that I want. What are people seeing? Is it that I change the oil on our vehicles when necessary or replace the head on our string trimmer? I like doing all that stuff. And why I am so shocked to hear a man in my family openly declare that he and his wife take care of each other?

I talk with my sister about all this. “Do you feel taken care of?” I open with. “This is not the day to ask,” she responds. The answer was “no,” and I knew it before I asked her. I questioned her to begin a discussion with her that will help me figure out why we are the way we are. She has been canning tomatoes for her son and for me, and digging potatoes now, even though she prefers to wait. Her timing on the potatoes is to accommodate her husband. She works and does and goes, often until she’s ready to drop. It’s been like this for years, and today she is tired. I can hear it in her voice. I am tired too. Why do we do this? Why do we extend ourselves beyond what is good for us, and why do we ask for so little help or support.

One of my prime examples would be helping my husband, last fall and this fall, take thirteen students into the wilderness for three days. We haul boats and gear and water and food, and cooking utensils a quarter of a mile in, set up tents, cook over an open fire and propane stoves, paddle, swim, and repeat the hauling of gear and boats back up and out, then drive four hours home to unload and unpack wet tents and put away coolers, water jugs and leftover food, and wash dishes that only got minimal attention in the woods. Halfway into the drive home, David and I in separate vehicles each carrying a load of boats on our roofs, I am exhausted to tears. More than my body is weary. Although we have been working together for four days, we have not had one single conversation about ourselves, and have not shared a hug or kiss. We have “been there” for the 13 kids and the two adults, but not for each other and I am depleted emotionally as well as physically.

This is not so unusual for me either; my sister and I are cut out of the same fabric. It is the family fabric, but this year I tell my husband that we will have to reevaluate for next year. I’m ready to change something I realize; I want to take better care of myself and my relationships, and I want to be better taken care of. I realize it has to start right here with me in my own thoughts. I notice that in order to get what you need or want, a person has to learn to ask for it and expect that it will come. God does open his hand and satisfy our desires, but mostly He wants us to ask Him for them. I have a hard time asking for things from God and from people.

On the positive side, I can honestly say that I love life. There are so many interesting things to do and to learn about, and I like doing and learning. I don’t want to miss out on anything. I wouldn’t trade away all the stuff I have learned how to do. I can also honestly say that I am learning to love people, and that means I will extend myself for them, because I like to see them happy, or to know that I have made their lives easier or better. I can also honestly say that I like the feeling of working my body, of feeling it work, feeling it moderately tired, and feeling how good the contrast is when I get rested from exertion. And quite honestly, there is a lot of work to do to maintain a “simple” lifestyle, a lifestyle where we eat food we’ve grown, and I’m willing to work to be healthy and to not have a lot of needs that have to be satisfied by shopping at stores. I enjoy seeing results; I like to look at a box of potatoes I’ve just dug or pile of firewood, or jars of freshly canned applesauce on the counter. But I also like to and need to rest, read, write, think and pray. Unfortunately I often feel guilty when I do these things for “too long”, and I will often sacrifice them for the more physical kinds of work. Why? It’s not simply a matter of balance, though that does play into it. I have trouble admitting that something is too much for me or asking for help.

I have to follow the thread of my life back to try and understand what are the underpinnings for my working too hard or too much. Our family values good, hard, honest work and there’s nothing wrong with that, nor would I want to change it. Somewhere along the line something got added, something like: the more you work the better you are, more important you are, or more valued you are. Value got attached to doing versus being, and has grown to such an extent that my brother Len will not stop to go to the hospital after he has taken a tumble in the middle of a 100 mile bike ride and his shoulder is hurting. He will “tough it out” until the end and then find out that he has ridden on a broken collar bone. And it has passed to the next generation as well. Both my sister and I have daughters that will run, ride, or climb through pain, ignoring their body’s normal warning signals.

I don’t know what drives these others, but for me, my identity has become hooked to some kind of accomplishment be it ever so small in the grand scheme of life, and I long to have that erased, to be loved and valued for who I am regardless of how much work I do or don’t do. In reality I am! And it is wonderful, but this message hasn’t yet reached every cell of my mind. It’s almost like I can’t really believe it, or don’t really believe it. I think if I could marinate in this kind of love for a few years it would make a difference to me; it would pervade and permeate even the toughest places to reach. These are subconscious things that are being pulled into the consciousness, and they don’t really want to be exposed. There are habits too, that need to be altered. So I have to be concrete and intentional for a while at least to help myself get the message, and be patient with myself when I fall back into my habits of overwork, of working for the wrong reasons, or of ignoring emotional, relational and spiritual needs.

I am praying about all this, knowing I need some help, knowing I need some part of my inside world reconfigured. I know God does the major part, but I’d like to do my part too. If I could remember Jesus’ words, “Mary has chosen the best things (listening, learning, and worshiping over working) and they won’t be taken from her” and Plato’s adage, “The unexamined life isn’t worth living” it would help me a lot. I believe these things, and want to live them much better. I’d like to take myself to a quiet place three times a day to sit quietly and pray for ten minutes each time. That’s only a half hour in total, but it could help me to collect myself, listen, learn from the previous section of the day, and get guidance for the next part. I could ask myself, “Why are you doing this?” in an attempt to separate the work that is self-esteem driven. I can learn to ask for what I need and want.

My sadness and frustration is that I don’t do well hearing and responding to the indirect emotional needs of those around me, or at knowing and sharing my own emotional needs. There is so much more to love and to share in life that I am missing. I am charmed when I see couples being gentle and attentive to one another. My theory is the better I become at taking care of my whole being, the better I will be at taking care of the whole being of others. This will mean being in touch with what others are thinking and feeling, their wants and wishes, and not only caring for the entire being of us all, but also being able to adjust to make life gentle and pleasant for one another. The picture I want to have in my mind and want to live out is people connected and caring, moving through life at peace. My goal is come to a place where I can say about the people I love, “We take care of each other.”

Monday, September 8, 2008

Potato Digging

It is September, and light twinkles through the trees, coming in at a lower angle every day. The maple leaves are beginning to turn orange and red on selected branches, and in a sweeping glance at hillsides, one sees a tinge of yellow and orange. The green is fading. Serious gardeners have reaped most of the benefits of the spring seeding and summer weeding, and are starting to pull out all the fading and wizzled vines in an effort to bring some order back to the gone-crazy-August garden. My kitchen and pasture gardens are reduced to broccoli, carrots, beets, turnip, swiss chard, pole beans, parsely, kale, collard, zucchini, nasturtiums, and a few tomatoes. Cucumbers are still multiplying by the bucketful, pole beans are hanging in there, but the beets and swiss chard are fighting a nightly battle of survival as neighborhood deer drop by for a visit. My sister and I ask each other on the phone, “How are you?” sensing something in the other one’s tone of voice. When one of us admits that we’re a little tired, the other one readily agrees. There’s been a lot of canning and freezing to keep up with, even though it is less then at the height of our family life.

I have another garden that both exhausts me and elates me, and it is about a mile away. Our neighbor, Brud owns a big farm, at the elbow of Swett Road, off Crow Hill Road. His belted galloways, goats, sheep and chickens roam free -- at least they seem free to look at them grazing in the brilliant green grass that seems to touch the sky. We have developed a help-each-other-out-wherever-we-can relationship that started just after he moved in with his golden retriever who would not stay home, and as a result introduced Brud to all his neighbors. Over the past two years Brud spent many evenings around our table, sharing a meal, sharing ideas, sharing the long lonely nights together because a real estate agreement went bad and he was left holding two properties concurrently, his wife and boys holding down one, and he, the other.

Deep winter is a great time to dream about gardens, and some time along the way we hatched a plan of sharing a garden at his place. It was a very loose agreement whereby he would prepare the ground, and provide a good share of the seed, and we would tend the crop, harvest the crop, and divide the crop in half between us. The crop? Potatoes! Plans hatched in winter are often part dream, but this one worked itself into reality bit by bit. Brud stopped by one day to announce that the ground was plowed. Weeks went by, then he stopped by again to announce that he had the seed – but I was to remember that he wanted to add soil amendments to each row – he would show me how. We agreed on a day when we could both be there, and as God smiled on me that day, his hired boy and my best potato-planting daughter were available. We made time digging the trenches and sprinkling the minerals, cutting the seed and then covering. Eventually Brud and his boy went off to cut some hay and Emily and I continued. We continued until she had to go, then I continued until every bit of seed was planted, which makes perfect sense to me, but the next morning I was quite sore and Brud called almost shouting into the phone, “You are a potato-planting FOOL!” “Am I?” I asked innocently. Ten rows, fifty feet in length.

David helped me hill them – twice, and I spent wonderful hours in amongst the rows, picking potato beetles and popping them into soapy water in a jar, the quiet of the afternoons broken by crows calling and cows bawling. When my mother came to live with us late in June, she would walk down into that garden behind the barn and help me pick the soft pink bugs as long as her back could stand the bending over, then wait for me in her chair on the side of the garden.

In August the potatoes in our cellar began to run out. The potato patch called out to me. I couldn’t keep my hands out of the hills much longer, there was an itch to see what was underground, an inner excitement building. When I had one meal of potatoes left, I felt justified to do it. I could not tell anyone I was going. This was my time by myself, and besides I would like to avoid my husbands I-can’t-believe-you-can’t-control-yourself look. I dug one hill, four red potatoes. It is the end hill, what will be in the next one, I wondered. I dug into it, five red potatoes. Maybe there is more in the next one….

I really have a hard time stopping myself from digging. I have to admit it. David laughs at me and reminds me that in 1844 folks left their potatoes in the field till after October 22nd , thinking Jesus was coming, and those potatoes fared better than the ones dug in September. I know this is true, and I know that there is no big hurry. But, even when I go up to that garden to innocently check on the broccoli that we planted between the rows, I stand and look at the rows of potatoes left to dig, and it is hard to walk away.

Last week I dug four rows of potatoes. My mother was my witness at the end of the rows. It was hard work, there is dirt underneath my fingernails still, and my back on Friday night was complaining, but I sat on mounds of dirt and opened little windows into the potato houses and pulled out families of seven, ten, and eleven. There were big, fat, golden Yukons, odd shaped King Harry’s in pale skin, and scarlet reds rolling out of the soil. Dirt goes down my boots but who cares. My pants are filthy but so what. On I go, like a mole, digging hill after hill. I love to have my hands there in the earth, searching and finding the hidden treasure, humble though it is. I am sometimes surprised.

In four rows of potato digging, I have come across three mouse nests inside the hills. It is a place of leaves in a loose ball, that provides space and softness to furry bodies. Two of these mouse nests have been occupied and I have squeaked as the mother mouse has jumped quickly and nimbly between my hands and scurried off. Squealing babies are not near as fast and one batch could not yet see. I hate myself for ruining a home and orphaning those young, and come warily back the next morning to see the fate of them. Their little fawn colored backs are still squirming around, now in a hollow. How have they made it through the night? Has the mother been back to feed them? Will she make another nest and carry them to it? I can only hope. It would ease my conscience.

On Friday I walk down to the potato patch to look things over. I am not there to dig potatoes, I am too tired. I am there to pick some corn for supper. Only seven ears, I tell myself, seven will be enough. I look at the wilted potato tops. They have done so well this year, grown so tall, and so far have produced so well, and their time of growth is over. So soon it seems. Where has the summer gone? I count six and a half more rows to go, and four varieties: Yukons, Green Mountains, Superiors, and Russets. I want to see each potato as it emerges into the light. Not now, I tell myself. You have to go home, your mother is waiting for you.

I stand alone for a few minutes and it seems so good to be here. The wind ruffles the corn stalks and tassles, the baby mice are gone. How can there be so much joy and hard work all in one place? It is the story of my life and I wonder, when my hill is dug by the Master, what my lifes' summer will have yielded? What will roll into His hands? I hope He will be as pleased as I am right now. We too have such a short growing season after all. I pick nine ears of corn, turn my back on the potato patch, and remind myself that they will still be here when I can come back to them.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Blue Eyes, Blue Sky, Blueberries

September 7th is late in the season to pick blueberries, and for my mother who is 80, it is a long way down the hill to get to the blueberry bushes, and an even longer way up the hill to get back to the house where she can rest. They don't add up fast on these days when we are just harvesting one at a time, for the joy of being outside under the blue sky, with blue jays scolding their disapproval from nearby trees, and chickadees calling out perpetual encouragement.

It is all joy for me to have my mother with me, wispy white hair blowing in the wind, and slightly discouraged at how little she has in her bucket. Though I know she is tired from the sighs, she does not really want to leave, and yet she must. We take slow steps together and I cherish each one, and each blueberry too.