Sunday, August 23, 2015

Some Summer Happenings

Here in Oregon the smoke is thick as winter fog.  Like fog, it makes the world seem silent and a bit ominous.  The sun shines through and spreads a strange orange glow on the landscape, and the it looks like a glowing red ball as it sets.



Our eyes burn, and our sinuses ache, and we cough, and the air seems almost poisonous.

The smoke blew in from further east, we are told.  We're also told that some 90 fires are burning all over the Northwest.  The stories and pictures are just terrifying.

It all has an apocalyptic feel, and we are praying and hoping for rain.

Three firefighters have died, and it hits me hard, because Steven is learning to be a firefighter and EMT.  "No, Mom, they're not going to send me to fight wildfires," he says.  "I'm not certified for that."

But they're taking people from local fire departments, and prisoners, and the National Guard.  So he and his classmates might be next.

One of Steven's first assignments, once he was qualified to go on calls, was to rescue a cat out of a tree.

Yes, just that cliche, but it totally warmed my heart to hear him tell, grinning, how he climbed the ladder 20 feet into the tree and rescued the cat and brought it down.

He is a Rescuer at heart, and it's right that rescuing should be his life work.

But firefighting is more than rescuing cats, and one of these times he will be the guy in the yellow suit, heading straight for the flames with 50 pounds of hose on his shoulder.

May God surround him with protecting angels when that day comes, and may He send an angel or two to keep me calm as well.

*     *     *
This has been a busy busy summer.

Dad was here for most of it.
We went to Detering Orchards and Dad got to pick up windfalls.
He was very happy.
We looked up the spot where Grandma jumped off the train.
Dad liked to watch the action over at "the plant," as he calls it.
Here he watches Keith push Leonard Baker's seed into a pile.
My brother Marcus, in the middle, brought Dad to Oregon, along with his wife Anna.
Phil, on the right, came for a visit.
So we posed for a sibling picture. "Put your arms around each other for goodness sake!"
said the photographer.  So we did.
*     *     *
Two mama cats had lots of kittens.  One cat was a good mom, loving, attentive, calm, practical.  The other cat was really an odd mama, obsessive and oblivious by turns.

Jenny put the cats' water in an old pie tin instead of a sour cream tub so the kitties could drink more easily.  Well.  The strange mama has this bizarre habit of leaping straight up and about three feet north whenever we open the door, no matter if she's asleep, eating, whatever.

One day she was lying on the porch, nursing her babies.  I opened the door and she levitated off the floor, scattering kitties in all directions.  One of them landed right in the pie tin of water.

What kind of mom does this??? Seriously!  I exclaimed to Steven, "That cat is so weird!" and he said,

Quote of the Day:
"That's what happens when you have kids too young."

Oh Steven, we love you.

Two batches of kittens in one box.
It has been a hot summer.  The cats start melting at about 85 degrees.
And yes, for all the Animal People who are right now reaching for their phones to call me because I must not know about Spaying, we are giving kittens away to Good Homes and will take Steps to Prevent such a Population Explosion in the future.  I just wish the cats would ask Paul before they start dating, like the daughters do.  It would at least give us fair warning.

*     *     *
Yesterday we went to a wedding and like I do at weddings, I watched people and whispered observations to the daughter beside me.

I love to watch people, and tell stories about them, and figure out how they're connected to everyone else I know.

I also like to imitate them, and laugh about their quirks.  Because some people, oh my, they just have all these odd delicious quirks and they always do these same bizarre things that they've done for the last 40 years, and it is so much fun to discuss this.

And if you are talking with someone who is equally fascinated by people, it is just so much more fun than observing it yourself and making notes about it in your little notebook.

So we were sitting there watching people file out, bench by bench, hugging and hand-shaking the bride and groom, and that One Guy with a reputation for Being Like That filed out, and I whispered something about it to Jenny, with a snicker.  And then I realized that he might have a family member sitting close by who could have heard what I said, and suddenly I felt Horrible and Mocking and Unkind.

Since then I've been wondering about these things, and what are the proper boundaries, and how do you enjoy observing the endless variety of personal quirks without descending into belittling and nastiness?

On the one hand, I think you should be allowed to say some things about people, in the privacy of your home, that you would not say to their face.

I also think that if people don't want to be spoken of in That Way, they should refrain from doing Those Things.

And I don't know if I could survive as a pastor's wife if Paul and I couldn't have honest conversations about people.

But I also felt like the moment at the wedding was a Holy Spirit nudge that my heart was feeling like I was way superior to That One Guy and my amusement was far too condescending.  Maybe that's the key thing, and maybe it's ok to enjoy other's oddities and strangenesses if I let people get just as much amusement out of mine, recognizing that I have plenty to choose from.

*     *     *
My last post was about a busy day, which was part of a terribly busy week.  Then, suddenly, Pauline Scheffel's funeral was over, and so was VBS, and Matt was back in Washington, D.C.

So Paul and I went to the coast for a few days and stayed in a nice ocean-front hotel, thanks to the generous school board and their end-of-year gift.

I walked on the beach a lot and it was rest for my soul.  I watched the sun set and I watched the sanderlings, who are the happiest birds ever, run along the shore with their zippy little legs.  They like to peck the microscopic creatures the wave leaves behind, so they run along in a group, always at the top edge that the wave reaches on the sand, and they peck and run and have good times with each other.

In fact, they are a lot like Pauline who passed away last week--small in size but it doesn't bother them in the least, moving rapidly and getting a lot done without being nervous or frantic, just very happy to keep busy doing what God made them to do.

We also went out on a whale-watching expedition because there's a pod of some 200 whales that summer close to Newport, and Paul thought I really needed to go out on the ocean for the first time.

He bought me some Dramamine the day before, since I get carsick and airsick, and surely I would get seasick as well.

The Dramamine was a 24-hour variety, and it bragged that it was "less drowsy."

Well.  I took half a pill and spent the next 28 hours falling asleep pretty much every time I sat down.

But first we got on the boat, which motored out of the bay, where the fishermen were unloading tuna, and then out past the jetties, a rough ride in itself, and then it hit the 5 and 6 foot swells, plowing up and plunging down like a bull at a rodeo.

"Just watch the horizon!" said the cheerful lady at the microphone.  I have a feeling she also wrote the "less-drowsy" label for the Dramamine and is also the person who tells pregnant women to drink ginger tea to take care of their morning sickness.

I leaned back against Paul and closed my eyes.  "We're having some ocean motion!" said the microphone lady cheerfully.  She said "ocean motion" several times, like it was very clever.

We did not see whales.

The ride back was with rather than against the wind so I could open my eyes and take in the demo on the stern, where Mrs. Cheerful had some kids drag plankton out of the ocean in a cool little net with a cup on the end.  She was always recruiting Helpers, since the boat was full of children on a field trip with OMSI.  I even got to be a Helper and hold the strainer while she poured the water through.

So it was kind of a disappointing trip, all around, but I didn't throw up, and I can now say I've been on the ocean, and it is nice to have a husband who wants me to have new adventures.
Here we are just past the bridge, and I am still smiling.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Mrs. Smucker's Busy Day

My cup overflowed today.

No, I'm afraid it wasn't my cup runneth-ing over with J-O-Y but rather the one in my head overflowing with stuff.

I often say I have a cup in my head that holds information about what I need to remember, who I need to call, what I need to take along, stuff like that.  This cup has about a half-cup capacity.

Anything that spills over gets forgotten.

This week is Vacation Bible School, and Matt is coming for a visit, and a dear older lady from church passed away.

This morning my phone rang.  Should we warn the funeral-goers about the traffic from the Country Music Festival?

I called someone who should know.

They texted back: yes.  So I put it on the prayer chain, a process that involves calling a number and then beeping through four or five options, and then recording the message, which involves about three takes because I always flounder near the end or someone walks into the room, hollering.

Another person called.  Could I set out the lunch for the family before the funeral tomorrow, if they buy the food?  Yes I could.

Another person called.  Did I realize they and we were in charge of the VBS picnic on Saturday, since we're on the missions committee?

No, I hadn't realized.  Yes, I can pick up food for up to 200 people at Costco, since I'd rather do that than set up tables and chairs.

I was trying to figure out how to pick up Matt at the Amtrak station at 3:30, go to Costco, and also get to the viewing by 6 pm.

Meanwhile I was trying to cut out and sew a skort for Jenny's friend Brenna who is going to a Baptist college next week and needs below-knee feminine athletic attire and I had told her I'd make her something.

Another person called.  Could I put on the prayer chain that they desperately need cookies for VBS?

So I did.

Paul's mom called.  Could she go to the viewing with us?  I said I'm not sure, with picking up Matt and stuff.  She decided to go with her daughter Lois.

Then I drove over to Horse Creek Farms to replenish our supply of fresh vegetables.

And washed another load of Dad's bedding, since Paul and I flew with him to Minnesota last week, and left him there, returning Friday evening, and now I'm washing his massive stack of blankets.

I texted Jenny to pick up lunch meat from the deli at work.

Ben came home from his class at OSU. We discussed possible weekend plans, such as hiking to Horse Rock, when Matt is here. Hey!  Maybe he could go get Matt at the station!  He said he would. Yippee!

I got meatballs out of the freezer for supper and butter out of the fridge to make cookies.

A guy named Derek Morgan called.  He had a telemarketer accent and said he is Emily Smucker's boyfriend and went to college with her, and he is worried about her because she hasn't been in da class.

I said, "Tristan, is this you?!" because it sounded like Cousin Darrell's son trying on a voice.

"How's that?  What did you say?"

I hung up.  He called back with more of the same.

I laughed at him and hung up again.

Emily was driving tractor.  I texted her about these calls and she found it funny because the guys in college who fell in love with her were always named Derek, but this didn't seem to be one of them.

Ben called.  The Bolt bus was at the station but Matt wasn't there.

Frantic calls followed.

I had gotten the date wrong.  Matt is coming tomorrow.

I texted the other kids so they'd know.  Steven said he won't be able to get off to come home this weekend at all.  He is a very dedicated firefighter/student but it made me sad he couldn't come.

I frantically sewed the skort some more.

And I decided not to go to the viewing after all since I'll see the family over lunch tomorrow.

I set sprinklers and kept overloading the pump, so I had to go out to the pumphouse and re-set the pump, which puts pressure in the new pressure tank, which looks like a Minion [weird little movie character].

Paul said he can go to Costco for me! What a relief.  So I made such a grocery list as you need for up to 200 people, such as 125 hamburger buns and 6 big bags of chips and 200 ice cream bars.  And he went and bought Much Stuff, and delivered it right to church and put the frozen stuff in the freezer, God bless him.

The clinic called and said I can pick up some samples of medication to tide me over until my order comes from Canada.

I put rice in the cooker and then drove to Junction City and fetched the medicine.

I fed the calves.

I made sweet-n-sour-meatballs for supper.  The meatballs burned because I was busy listening to Emily who was wondering if a young man from CouchSurfer.com could stay with us for a few weeks while he works at Detering Orchards.  We decided "no."

I hung up laundry, and fed the cats, and texted Brenna about the skort, and washed dishes, and took the rings off the applesauce we canned yesterday.

There was more, but I don't remember it.  My day felt like Too Much, but it would have been So Much More if Ben and Paul hadn't gone to town for me.

Some people thrive on things coming at them from all directions.  Like Paul, for instance, who comes alive when his phone is always ringing and he has 15 decisions to make and is always going going going.

I have never done well with this.  I did better back when I still had my full mind, but now it is not fun.

And yet, it keeps happening, no matter how much I say No, which makes me suspect that I have a deep lesson to learn here, like maybe I have made an idol out of time alone and rest, since they look so impossible and appealing just now.

Yesterday was much the same as today, plus we were canning the first batch of applesauce.  To save my sanity I decided not to attend the Oregon Christian Writers Summer Conference Awards Ceremony last evening.  It was in Portland, and I was a finalist in the Published Article category.  I haven't heard yet if I won or not.  So I might be a real Award-Winning Author, but some Award-Winning Authors have to wash applesauce kettles.

So this is why I haven't been writing much, or blogging, or working on new projects.

Writers like Jan Karon, I am told, write in solitude, in pretty rooms, for hours a day.  I've always had the sense that writing isn't supposed to be my main occupation, and that real life, overwhelming as it can be, is what gives me something worthwhile to say, now and then.

On our anniversary, which was Monday, I sat down and hastily typed this on Facebook before I went to bed:

31 years ago today we got married. Of course we were impossibly young and naive, but we went into it believing that divorce was not an option. Ruth Bell Graham once said, "We never considered divorce. Murder, occasionally, but never divorce." So yes we've had tough times but thankfully neither of us changed our minds and here we are. I don't think you appreciate the gift of a strong faithful loving sacrificing man until you've been married for years and have seen the ditches littered with abandoned and neglected families. The hardest and best lesson I've learned: that only Jesus is Enough. And only Jesus can fill the deep-down hunger for security and affirmation and being treasured. Once you get that, then anything your husband does for you is icing on the cake. If you don't get that, then all your husband's efforts will fall short of being Enough, and you will feel a constant vague disappointment in the back rooms of your soul.

To my complete surprise it touched a nerve and got a lot of Facebook-style response--likes and shares and comments.

I told Ben about this.  "I just don't get it.  I can sweat for HOURS over a column and just get this lukewarm response, then I dash this out in five MINUTES and it goes bananas!"

He said, "Yes, but it took you a lot longer than five minutes to learn the things you wrote about there."

That is very true.

So hopefully in these overwhelming days I am learning something worthwhile as well.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Letter from Harrisburg: On Farming


Letter from Harrisburg

Essence  of farming  will live on

 

 

“It reminds me of the Dust Bowl of the ’30s,” my dad said, looking out the car window as I drove toward Harrisburg on one of this summer’s many hot, dry days.
In a bare field to the west, a tractor and plow stirred up an expanding cloud of dust, as though the plow were dragging a brown tornado laid on its side.
“How did you make it through those days?” I asked.
“Oh, we were OK,” he said. “Our part of Oklahoma was about 50 miles east of the worst of the Dust Bowl. We had a good supply of water underground. And a windmill. So we could water the garden, and the livestock had plenty of water. We managed all right. But further to the west they plowed up the shortgrass prairie and then it dried out and the wind came and carried off the soil. Tons and tons of it. It was terrible.”
Dad, who is 98 years old, lives in Minnesota but is spending the summer with us. Oregon’s grass-seed harvest is fascinating to him. He stands outside in his blue jacket and gray trilby hat and watches the equipment at work in the fields — windrowers cutting and raking the grass, combines eating up the neatly piled rows and augering the seed into farm trucks, and then a convoy of tractors and balers roaring in and baling the loose straw left behind.
“The bales are huge,” Dad marvels. “Not like we used to have. And these are just the right size to set on a truck. They stack them just so and it fills up the truck nice and even.”
“Farmer talk,” we call it, and there’s a lot of it at our house, even though we don’t farm any land ­ourselves.
Dad talks about Oklahoma in the ’20s and ’30s — farming with horses and learning to survive when wheat brought only 25 cents a bushel.
My husband cleans and processes grass seed and talks about germination tests and which lots of ryegrass are shipping out today and which farmer is finishing his fescue first.
Our daughter Emily comes home from working for a farmer a few miles south of us, driving an air-conditioned combine or tractor, and tells stories about her day. “The combine plugged up today,” she will say. “I turned it off of course, and then I had to take a big wrench and turn the header to unplug it because it’s an older ­combine so it doesn’t have a switch to reverse the header.”
Her brother Ben and I look at each other.
“Emily is talking farmer-talk?” he whispers, bending his eyebrows.
“Yes. Bizarre.” I mouth back.
After all, Emily is a college student who enjoys vintage fashion and writing computer code and discussing literature. She is also on her third summer of working for local farmers, so she can now discuss flail-chopping and fescue harvesting almost as easily as minimalism and multicultural communication.
And it all makes me reminisce about farming in Minnesota in the 1970s with a John Deere 720, disking fields on spring days, picking rocks and stacking hay bales that even a high school girl like me could handle, but just barely.
Farming is a diverse occupation, differing vastly in methods, equipment and crops from one part of the country to another and from one generation to the next. My dad talking about horses and sorghum is like a different language and culture from Emily’s harvesting ryegrass seed in Oregon on a John Deere ­combine.
“I used to find horseshoes when I was land planing last year,” Emily told us. “They would get hung up on the blade and make this big groove in my nice smooth dirt, and I’d have to stop the tractor and go back and pull it off.
“I guess a horse would throw a shoe and it would get plowed under and then gradually work its way back up again,” she guessed.
“Ask Grandpa,” I suggested.
“You didn’t have to put shoes on the work horses,” Dad said. “The buggy horses, yes, because the roads were hard on their feet. But the fields were softer.”
“Maybe that field was a pasture for the horses at one time,” Emily concluded.
Then we went silent for a little, thinking about horseshoes and land planes, what these flat brown fields have seen and how much farming has changed, from horses to sputtering narrow-nosed Farmall tractors to massive modern tractors guided by GPS.
“Our neighbors have one,” says Cousin Trish, “the kids can sit in there and read or play on an iPad, and the tractor goes along by itself. The only time they need to help it is on the corners.”
And yet, no matter the time or place, farming is about the same elemental things. Working the soil, dropping the seed, watching the weather. Fighting weeds, feeding stock, fixing equipment. Holding the head of grain in your hand, feeling its weight, deciding when to cut the first swath and then harvesting the loads of grain or seed or corn. And always, the miracle of life and growth and nourishment in that little dry kernel.
It’s also about character, wisdom, thinking of the future, and the dangers of ambition over caring for the soil and for each other.
“Do you think modern farmers are spoiled?” I asked my dad, referring to the physical work of driving a combine versus pitching wheat sheaves into a threshing machine.
“To some extent, yes,” he admitted. “But I’m more troubled by greed. The big farmers take over and think they have to have more acreage. They could do with 500 but they go for 1,000 or 1,500. What would happen if we had a crash like ’29? I don’t know. And I don’t see how a young man could ever get started with farming, the way the big farmers outbid the small ones.”
He believes in careful stewardship of the land. “A lot of the farmers left in the dry years,” he said. “The Okies, you know. The ones who stayed took better care of the land, so it wouldn’t blow so much. They didn’t do too badly then.”
“The ones who just grew one thing, like wheat or cotton, they went under in the dry years. But we diversified. Grain sorghum, sweet sorghum, milo maize. We’d harvest the grain from the sorghum and then put the stalks in the silo. It worked very well.”
I thought of the increasing number of filbert orchards planted along Powerline Road. Apparently Willamette Valley grass-seed ­farmers are choosing to vary their crops as well.
Local author Dan Armstrong researches agricultural logistics and encourages Oregon farmers to diversify, not only in case of a financial crisis but to encourage locally grown food sources in addition to seed crops. He works with small farmers seeking to grow food crops and market them in this area. He gave me a packet of quinoa seeds and told me how to grow them, a gesture that told me he is practical as well as theoretical.
He and my dad would get along well.
My husband’s extended family gathered in the front yard of Uncle James and Aunt Orpha’s house on a windy evening in July and ate grilled hamburgers and potato salad and cake.
As we ate and visited, two tractors towing equipment roared by and entered the field across the road. Up close, farm machinery is always much bigger than you thought. “My goodness,” said Aunt Nadine. “We sure didn’t farm like this when I was young.”
We didn’t when I was young, either. And yet, fundamentally, we did, and so did my dad, and so does the cousin with the latest New Holland combine the size of your house, and so did that farmer whose horse kept dropping his shoes for Emily to catch on the land-planer a hundred years later.
Dirt sifted through carefully analyzing fingers, prayers for rain or sunshine, life and hope in a million tiny seeds, food on the dinner table — the soul-deep essence of farming always will be the same. Farmers always will speak farmer-talk, the summer sun will be hot on their shoulders, and the tiny green shoot pushing through the soil will forever seem a miracle.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Southern Accents, Oklahoma Memories, and Writing Cabins

You know how Americans are a bit too enraptured with all things British?

William and Catherine!
Buckingham Palace!
The accent!
Tea!
The Queen!

Well.  I am like that about the American South.

The porches!
The accent!
"Yes, Sir," and "No, Ma'am!"
Fried okra!
Black-eyed peas!
The accent!
The chivalry!
The manners!
Fried chicken!
Big brick churches!
And did I mention the accent?!

Last week one day I got a phone call from a truck driver who needed to pick up a load at the warehouse.  Oh. My. Word.  He had the thickest and heaviest Southern accent I've heard in YEARS.  He was from Memphis!  How many truck drivers from Memphis come to the Wilton Smucker Warehouse?  I would have said None, but there he was, with an accent so thick you had to sort out the words one by one because they were stretched out and then glued together with sweet tea and molasses.

Ben came home from sacking that day and told us about this truck driver who came by with this unbelievable Southern accent, so I wasn't the only one who was impressed.

Paul's explanation was that there's a company in Memphis that for some reason decided to send their own trucks for seed rather than having it shipped by rail or some other way.

Just a few days ago it happened again.  The accent wasn't quite as pronounced, but again it was a truck driver and he was traaah-in' to faaahhhnnnd this warehouse, and the G-P-EHHSSS had sent him to the end of Substation, and he couldn't go no further.

Well.  That meant he was right outside our house.

I told him to turn right and go a quarter mile and look for the sign.  Then I looked out the window and there went this big white truck, with the company name on the side.  "Wiley Sanders."  Oh my word.  Could there possibly be a more Southern name than WILEY SANDERS?

My sister Margaret married a guy from Mississippi and is a little less starry-eyed about the South than I am.  It's HOT AND MUGGY, she says, and there are BIG SNAKES in her mother-in-law's attic!

So I guess I will continue to admire the South from afar and hope that lots of Southern farmers will feel compelled to buy grass seed from Oregon and have it shipped by an outfit like Wiley Sanders.  And I guess if my friends in the South want to call me up and just let me listen to them now and then, that would be ok too.

In other news:

Paul is working on prepping the old machine-shed boards for my writing cabin.  He pulled 99 old nails out of one board, he told me, which confirms for us all what a labor of love this is, since this goes entirely against his natural bent of being as efficient as possible.

I stopped by the other day and we evaluated which of those beautiful ancient textured boards should be used for flooring, siding, and so on.

This week I was at the authors' table at the county fair for a few hours and didn't sell many books but as always talked with other authors.

Bill Sullivan the hiking-guide author was stationed next to me.  Some years ago he and his wife built a log cabin way back in along the Siletz River.  They had to haul all their materials in by hand, a mile and a half.  He told me the hilarious story of going to the county office to get a permit for this project.  For one thing, he had drawn up the plans in metric measurements, and the county people just squinted at it, completely confused; for another, the officials were asking about plumbing, electricity, and road frontage, none of which applied, and like so many official paper-filers they didn't know what to do with this.  Finally they gave him one of those yellow papers that you tack up outside when you're doing a building project, indicating that the county has given you permission to work on this.  So Bill tacked the yellow paper up in a prominent place, knowing full well no one would ever check up on him.  The next day a cow ate it.

I knew Bill would understand the charm of a cabin with reclaimed materials, and I told him about our "Acorn Cottage" project and how Paul plans to make it.

He said, "Good.  You need a writing cabin.  I built a cabin for myself at the cabin."

Seriously?!

"Yes.  It's 8 by 10 feet.  I have a typewriter there and nothing else.  Well, a typewriter and a table and windows."

He went on, "Especially with writing fiction, you need to be by yourself."

All right then.  Not that I needed affirmation or permission, but it was nice to get it anyhow.
-     -     -

This week I also took Dad to see his cousin Paul Yoder in Eugene.  Both of them lived in Oklahoma, but Dad was eight years older, and Paul's family moved to Oregon when he was twelve.  They had a great time reminiscing and Dad could still reel off the names of all the Indian kids in school without even stopping to think.

I know Indian isn't the most appropriate term any more but that's what Dad called them so I'll keep the term for the sake of the story.

The government at that time was trying to get the Indians --mostly Cherokee and Osage in that area--to be farmers, so they would give each family some land, a plow, and two horses.  In one area near Thomas, Oklahoma, most of the farmers were Amish or Indian.

So that peculiar combination of cultures went to school together, apparently with no dominant-culture American/"Englisch" kids in the mix.  Many of the students got to be friends, and Dad and his brothers went to Indian pow-wows where, Dad says, the drums pounded all night long.

The Indians used to eat turtle soup and also puppy soup, Paul said. I don't know if they shared with the Amish kids or not.

When Paul was quite young, his brother Earl and Earl's friend Elmer decided to dip Julia Big Eagle's ponytail in the inkwell.  Pretty classic behavior of boys in that era, if the books are to be believed, but what happened then wasn't in any children's book that I've read.

Julia went home and told her mom what had happened, and her mom was not happy.  Paul says, "Her mom come to school the next morning, a big Indian woman, with her blanket wrapped around her, and from under the blanket she pulls this big butcher knife, and she took off after Earl and Elmer.  We were scared.  We didn't know what she was going to do."

Earl and Elmer dashed into the outhouse and locked the door.  Mrs. Big Eagle pounded on the door, trying to get in, and the terrified boys kicked out a board in the back of the outhouse, slithered through the hole, and ran off into the cornfield.

"I was just little," Paul said, "and my eyes were this big."

He still looked scared, telling us about it 80 years later.

-     -     -
Quote of the Day:
The dishwasher broke, which means a lot more conversation over dishes:
Emily and Ben get gradually more loud and animated, Smuckerishly, as they discuss a professor at LBCC.
Grandpa: A soft answer turneth away wrath!
Ben and Emily: Huh??!
Jenny: I think he thinks you guys are arguing.
Kids: [howls of laughter]
And we all think: Oh, Grandpa!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

When Life is Hard Slogging

About seven years ago I directed a dreadful Christmas play called Why the Chimes Rang.  It began as a good idea but turned into a bad-dream project that muddled on and on, growing huger and more complicated, with every aspect of it, from the singing to the costumes to the behavior at rehearsals, steadily degenerating into chaos as time went on.

Or at least that's how it is seared into my memory, which is why I haven't directed a play since.

One of the characters was a young mother who was hungry and lost on a winter night.  The actress was supposed to come down the church aisle, unsteady and desperate, clutching her baby in her shawl as the winter winds blew the snow down on the village.

She had one line to say: "Oh, I am so weary and cold."

Thankfully the girl who played this part had a sense of humor, because for some reason she COULD NOT GET THAT LINE.

"Oh I am so tired and hungry!" she would say before collapsing into the snowbank which I think was a pile of quilt batting from the sewing circle, covered with a white sheet.

No no.

Back up the aisle, turn around, and toward the front again, into the wind.  "I am so weary and tired!"

No!  "WEARY and COLD."

"Oh, I am so cold and hungry!"

I'm not sure if she ever got it right, even on the night of the program.  I should have let her ad-lib, I guess.  Who would have noticed?

I am thinking of this scene now because sometimes there are seasons of life in which it feels like we're all weary and cold, fighting our way into the winter wind, and our shawl isn't enough protection at all, and we are about to collapse into the snowbank with our baby in our arms.

Sometimes life is just a lot of hard slogging, on and on, and we grow weary in body and soul, which makes us extra weary and cold in spirit as well, and it feels we will never reach the front of the church, and for sure we won't hear the miraculous chimes when they ring in the steeple on Christmas Eve.

This is such a season.

I've had more sickness this summer than I've had in years.  Bouts of bronchitis, weeks of just feeling unwell that makes a normal day's work feel like climbing Mt. Hood, all of it complicated by a certain affliction that my children say is entirely TMI but it involves a sudden sense of flames radiating out of one's ears and breaking out in perspiration from every pore, and it comes upon women my age uninvited.

That this combination should land in the middle of summer, of all times, and the hottest summer in years, and just when everyone is working long days to the point of utter exhaustion, and also while my dad is here, just feels wrong.  Other times, there'd be someone around to pick up the slack.  Now, there isn't.

Life becomes a hard climb uphill, day after day.

As I said, there's the relentless heat, so unusual for an Oregon summer, and the early and intense dryness of it, so the grass has died, the lilac leaves--normally hardy through the heat of August--already look curled, and all the flowers wilt quickly as soon as my back is turned.

Harvest.  Animals to feed.  Yard work.  Jobs and school and vehicles. Fruit to pick and put away.

Summer is wonderful but it is also hard, and I sense in my spirit that I am not the only one facing a hard path to joy, that others face relentless spiritual forces as well, that many of us are short on rest of every kind.

Tests must be studied for, late at night, for summer classes, and the summer job means your friends go swimming and you stock shelves, and worn-out belts and motors must be fixed high in dusty warehouses in motionless heat.

Young people with long hours of alone time on combines and in deserted warehouses day after day end up with too much time to think and no outside voices to counter the inner noise.  Condemnation, temptation, depression--whatever the spiritual weakness, it shows up here.  And sometimes just a weird outlook on life, and then they start having arguments in their heads with all the stupid people on NPR or with Rush Limbaugh or that opinionated sports dude.

Then they think, "Wait.  I am arguing with people on the radio."

It's the season when young people apologize.  I first noticed this years ago, when a young friend was driving combine and then wrote me a note apologizing for how she had said something, and she's afraid she left the wrong impression, but really she meant it like this, and she feels very badly about this.

Combine syndrome, I named it.

Last Sunday two young people came to me separately and apologized for lying, kind of.  One wanted to leave this impression and not that, but it wasn't honest.  The other had answered a question impulsively but, she later realized, not accurately.

And I felt their soul struggles in the hot sunshine and I saw their difficult journeys and I wanted to say, "It's just a hard hard season, all around, and a tough trail, just now. Be gentle with yourself."

The day I found myself lecturing Caitlyn Jenner, I knew I had a bad case of combine syndrome of my own.  In case you're the last person in America to know this, the athlete Bruce Jenner has taken steps to transition into a woman and now goes by Caitlyn.  This news has been all over social media, news media, everywhere. And I was actually thinking about this, and harping in my head: "It is none of my business what you do with your life, but you're in your sixties and if you want people like me to take you seriously as a woman, how about you transition into someone named Edith with gray hair and a bit of a belly and some HOT FLASHES, OK???"

Then I thought: God help us.  Saeed Abedini is still in prison.  Christian people are dying in Nigeria.  There are still silent little orphans in toy-less cribs in Jamaica and China.

And I have followed the rest of this country down this rabbit hole of insanity.

I laughed at myself, which is what you learn to do at my age, especially if the choice is down to laughing or crying, and I went back to the Word and ate it hungrily.  And that is what I have been telling the discouraged young people in my life: you need more Jesus, and you need to counter the crazy voices with Scripture, even if it's a dusty note card tacked up by the sacker or a podcast on the combine.  And you need to talk with real people with real voices who speak real words to you.

So one morning I made Dad's oatmeal and then escaped to Jake's Cafe in Harrisburg and met a friend for breakfast.  A fellow mom who has kids the ages of mine and adrenal issues.  And those two hours were like a huge icy Kicker from Dutch Bros on a 100-degree day on an un-air-conditioned tractor.  Had I not been in this season, with all this work and all these challenges, I wouldn't have appreciated it half as much.

At least I know this, among all the hot flashes and hot days and the dry straw swirling and the hard uphill journey--the season eventually ends.  I've been here before, and I know this for a solid fact.  It doesn't last forever.  One day when you least expect it the farmer will tell you you're combining the last field today, and you'll have time in the afternoon to go swimming, or you can sit up late with friends on a Sunday night because you won't have class the next day, or a cloudy day turns into a scattered rain, and maybe the lilacs will be ok.

The day will come when the sackers won't be working night shift any more, the blueberries will all be in the freezer, the farmer won't need you to do flail-chopping until next week.  Your mind will think normal thoughts again, the confusion will pass, the guys on the radio will be only an occasional noise in the background.

And finally finally you'll reach the front of the church and get your line right, or at least right enough, and the long long walk will be done at last, and the chimes will ring in the ancient belfry, and as you sit on the pew and rest you will know that it was scary and hard and it seemed it would never end, but you are stronger, better, wiser, braver for what you've just been through.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

July's Column--On Summer, Food, and Such

LETTER FROM HARRISBURG

Cooking can nourish the soul, too

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
JULY 12, 2015

You’d have thought we were a pioneer family loading our covered wagon in St. Joseph, Mo., the other day, instead of a mother and daughter stocking up for the next few weeks at Cash and Carry, Eugene’s efficient restaurant-supply store.

Five dozen eggs. 25 pounds of brown sugar. 50 pounds of potatoes. A gallon each of barbecue sauce and ketchup. A quart of mustard. Six pounds of sliced cheese. Seven pounds of sandwich meats. Two quarts of cream. And a three-gallon barrel of vanilla ice cream.

We heaved it all into our car, the ice cream wrapped in a sleeping bag in the trunk and the potato bag awkwardly swung into the back seat with Emily and I each hoisting an end.

This summer, it seems that food is consuming me, instead of the other way around.

Food, family and the grass-seed harvest take up most of my time.

“You got any oats?” my 98-year-old dad demands enthusiastically at 7:15 a.m., thumping into the kitchen with his cane and his hard-soled shoes.

“Sorry, I gave them all to the horse!” I joke, and I set the little pan of water on the stove just as our son Ben comes in from a night of sacking grass seed and stands beside me at the stove frying three large quesadillas before he goes to bed for the day.

Steven, our youngest son, took his turn cooking for his fellow firefighter students on an overnight shift last week. Late the night before, he shredded potatoes and chopped celery for a salad, then left at 5 a.m. with a gallon container of pulled pork, 15 enormous buns, two quarts of homemade applesauce, and the tub of potato salad.

Some of us pack lunches to take to work; some eat lunch at home. Some make tea in the morning, some coffee. They all have different work schedules, so someone is constantly in the kitchen, rooting in the fridge for a late meal after work. Most of the seven of us gather around the table at 6 p.m. for a big meat-and-potatoes dinner. And just before 11 p.m., Ben once again rattles drawers and opens cupboard doors, preparing fuel for the middle of the night.

We pick gallons of berries to wash and freeze for winter, reserving some for fresh pies and cobblers.

Then there are hot dog roasts in the back yard with young cousins and friends around the fire pit in the dark, guests and grilled chicken on the Fourth, and Sunday dinners with extra leaves in the table and a pot roast in the oven all morning.

I’m the one who makes sure it all happens.

They all know basic cooking, I make sure of that, and they all pack their own lunches. But someone has to manage the logistics of this operation and keep it running efficiently, and that would be me.

“How did I get to this place?” I wonder now and then as I check the long list on my clipboard and brace my feet to heave a 200-pound cart of groceries down the condiments aisle at WinCo. I was the girl who could happily live on Cheerios, fresh peaches and iced tea. Mom taught me to cook, sort of, but I didn’t find it particularly interesting or fulfilling.

Paul and I took the traditional roles of breadwinner and housewife when we got married, which worried me just a little, but I soon learned that we were both happy with simple Crock-Pot meals.

Then the world spun around a few times and I found myself a mother of six, a pastor’s wife, a friend of many, and the chief food coordinator for a houseful of people and a stream of guests, with two refrigerators, two freezers, three full pantries, and a shocking grocery budget.

The most discouraging part of the job is that all my hard work is constantly disappearing. Hours of shopping, baking, thawing, stirring, frying, whipping and then, in minutes, it’s gone, with only a few bones left on the plates and a smear of dressing in the bowl.

This is what is means to be an adult, I think: to make peace with the life you didn’t foresee, to see spiritual significance in the daily repeated tasks and to find fulfillment in doing them well.

If all I can see is the doing, the disappearing and the dirty dishes, I’m going to be resentful. I won’t be concerned with quality and nutrition. I’ll quit being creative. Worst, I won’t see that it’s not about frantically shoveling mash in a trough but about bringing together and nourishing the people I love.

So, as I do with everything, I look to the Bible for perspective. “Bread” is the word for food in general, I find, and it is used with reverence.

“Man shall not live by bread alone,” Deuteronomy says, and Jesus repeats the words, much later. He teaches his followers to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” He asks, regarding God’s generosity, “What man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?” And then he says, mysteriously, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.”

The Book of Proverbs dares us to be surprising: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.” And: “He who has a generous eye will be blessed, for he gives of his bread to the poor.”

Food, I conclude, has far greater significance than a McDouble grabbed and eaten on the way to more important things. It’s meant to be fellowship, gratitude and sustenance, an indicator of character, a unifying gift, a symbol of spiritual realities.

If I believe in divine design, then I also believe that all these people in my life are precious to God, this constant hunger was intentional, and to nourish and feed his children is a calling with eternal significance.

“Work is love made visible,” Kahlil Gibran wrote in his poem “On Work.” “For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.”

The bowl of apples on the counter becomes a work of art, the bags of groceries hauled inside on a hot day a sacrifice to God, the cheesecake a fulfilling creative challenge. The cookie in a lunch bag opened on a dusty combine, the smell of bacon drifting upstairs on a summer morning, the barbecued dinner on the porch that makes a harvest-weary husband smile — these are holy and precious things, love offered on a plate, fragrant whiffs of joy, beauty that disappears in minutes but continues for a lifetime and eternity.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Guest Post on Properties of Light

Lucinda at Properties of Light asked me to do a guest blog while she's off on a mission project in Canada.

So I did.  It's kind of a motherly post, about our choices accumulating into a pile that constitutes our life when we're my age.

You can read it here.

Monday, June 29, 2015

A Busy Birthday

Today was my birthday.  I'm 53 years old now, which sounds terribly old but it doesn't feel that bad.

I decided to document what I did on my birthday, which proves that even when you're 53, sometimes you decide to act like a 15-year-old, complete with selfies.

Mostly, though, this is for me, to remind myself How Blessed I Am.

First I made a pot of tea for me and a pan of oatmeal for my dad, just like always.


Then Paul took me out for breakfast at Denny's.  But first I took my tea along, on my lap, because I like to sip tea while someone else is driving.



After a large breakfast, Paul dropped me off at Grocery Depot.  I love Grocery Depot.  These slabs of frozen pig were 99 cents a pound.  Now that Jenny's working there, I think I'm once again known as the go-to person who will take the stuff that's not selling or that doesn't fit in the freezer or that they simply don't know what to do with.

I am happy to fill that role.

Courtney rang me up.
It was nearly noon before we got home, so I bustled around to prepare for the annual birthday tea with Anita the neighbor and Lois the sister-in-law at 2:00.  This is a long-standing tradition of ours, since our birthdays are all close together.  The three of us are almost never together otherwise--maybe at funerals now and then.  But we love love love these birthday afternoons together, and we talked, and at 5:45 I just HAD to tell them another story, and they graciously listened.

See, you can have a lot of fun at these ages.

During our tea, Jenny came home from buying peaches, and my Sunday school pupil, Tanner, came by with the raspberries he and his brother picked for me.  Oh my.  Heaven.

 

Jenny made supper since it was my birthday--shrimp alfredo with spaghetti, and a spinach salad, and ice cream with fresh fruit.

Then the girls brought out a large, awkward package wrapped in a tablecloth.

It was an adorable yellow watering can.
Their one stipulation was that I need to get that awful green plastic watering can off the porch, now that I have this one.

I thought we needed a good shot of Paul and me, but first I had to get the raspberry seed out of my teeth, which Jenny felt compelled to document.


All right, now for the real picture:



After supper I talked with Matt on Skype for a long time, interrupted by a fun phone call from Paul's sister Barb, who likes to call people on their birthdays.

It was almost dark by then, but I decided to go on a quick bike ride in the lovely harvesty evening air.



When I came back I went to say hello to the calves, Merry and Pippin.



 Hey!  Why don't I take a selfie with the calves?!  So I did.


Steven came home late from his classes.  While he heated some leftovers and hunted for the comics, I tried to strike up a conversation, which is what I do.

Quote of the Day:
Me: Why don't you sit down and tell me about your life?
Steven:  Ahh, always with the broad questions.

But he talked enough to make me happy.  It was a good ending to a very good day.

I am indeed blessed.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

I Knew Them Back Then

Sometimes you don't realize how special a time was until long after it's gone.

The members of A Capella Harmony Quartet were all in Oregon for a little while, so they arranged to sing for our evening service today.

The parking lot was full when we arrived.  Cars were being parked on the grass to the south and on the ball field.  The sanctuary was full, so we sat in the balcony, where people hauled in Sunday school chairs and joined us.  Apparently the foyer below filled up as well, and we heard the clank of folding chairs as edges and corners filled up with overflow seating.

The singing was just lovely.  And, I'm told by someone who knows music, it was also just GOOD.

Later I was also told that, despite the fact that AHQ parted ways a long time ago, they're still one of the most popular groups in the acapella-only slice of the Mennonite church.  Hence the great turnout.

I thought: Wow.  I was here when they began.

First it was four young guys singing after church, just for fun.  Well, three really young guys and Tom.  I think Byran and David were 12 when they started, and Tom was a few years older.

Gradually they became a Group, and they'd be asked to share a few songs on Sunday evening, and Tom would get up front and ask "the boys" to join him.

They sang more, and better, and for more people.  They made a recording, then another and another.  They sang at weddings and Southern Gospel celebrations and churches.

Don McGarry's cat had four kittens, and he took it as a sign, and named them Tom, Byran, Konrad, and David.

AHQ did an impressive job of combining creativity, excellence, and humility.

Paul went on several tours with them, where Paul would talk about missions in Mexico, and the quartet would sing. [Since we weren't a singing family, and you can't have the missions talk without the singing.] I went along on a tour in the South, and we went to places like Florida and Georgia, and we had sweet tea and pink-pod-purple-eyed peas.

And then after they had been all over the country and had sung for all those fancy people, they would come back to Oregon and sing those same songs for us at little old Brownsville Mennonite.

When they sang Then Came the Morning, it always made me cry.

Eventually life, college, marriage, and such things got in the way, and the group disbanded.

But today they were there again, on the platform at Brownsville, with a lot more life lived, and the songs were not just fun, as they had been in the past, but sung out of hearts that knew them to be true.

They sang Then Came the Morning and it made me cry again because it was about the Resurrection and so achingly amazingly right and so beautifully sung.

Did I have any idea how blessed we were back then when Tom would step up to the platform and ask "the boys" to join him, and when we watched the group grow into what they became?

No.  But I know now.

I wonder: what wonderful future something is sprouting, all ordinary and hidden, in someone I know and see all the time, right now?

Quote of the Day:
"There's an Office Deppot and a Hair Saloon."
--Konrad Krabill, who deliberatly mispronounced things, in a rumbling commentary from the back seat of the van on one of our trips with AHQ

Sunday, June 21, 2015

On Dads, Smuckers, Sickness, and Good Things Accumulating


I've never understood why dads are so maligned in our culture, from the inept Berenstain Bears dad to commercials and YouTube videos that portray Mom as all capable and efficient, and Dad as the bumbling burping guy who's kind of along for the ride.

If a girl has a good Protector Dad, she won't put up with any nonsense from other men--that's been my observation.  Our girls have had employment situations where there was opportunity to be preyed on by creepy men.  I never feared for our daughters, who are all tough and articulate and would have put such a person exactly in his place.  Unlike the young lady they knew who said, all bewildered, "Well, yes, I gave him my phone number.  I didn't want to hurt his feelings."

A single mom can teach her daughter to be wise and strong.  But I think there's something magic about a strong dad that imparts an invisible security and suppleness in his kids, without even consciously trying.

Paradoxically, a dad's message of "I am here and I will fight for you" also says, "You have what it takes to go do what you need to do."

So Happy Father's Day to Paul, who is the person we turn to when the oven door shatters, the electrical outlet buzzes, the headlight breaks, the scammer calls, confidence lags, and any sort of danger lurks.

*****

Last weekend was the Smucker reunion at Drift Creek Camp, a Mennonite facility way back in the mountains of the Coast Range, east of Lincoln City.  You have to navigate miles of one-lane twisty roads to get there.

Four of the young ladies present were pregnant, which tells you how the population graph in this family is going.

If you want to see pictures of the weekend, click here.

*****

Unfortunately, a number of people at the reunion had sore throats.  Thanks to a strict regimen of diet and supplements and flu shots, I hadn't had bronchitis in two years.  But the combination of late nights and cold rooms and being rundown ahead of time was too much, and since I can't be content with a simple sore throat, I've been fighting that miserable cough/fever/asthma crud ever since.

My dad is here again for part of the summer, and he also got sick which worried me seriously.  But he got better after two days, which means his constitution at age 98 is better than mine at 52.

I've tried to be productive with immobile things like organizing recipes while outside the windrowers are rushing by and the guys are prepping the warehouse and harvest is HERE, the earliest harvest since Paul's had the warehouse.

Once again we are relying on a supply of sons and nephews to sack seed, with my nephew Austin Koehn coming to replace Paul's nephew Austin Smucker later in the summer.

*****

I have been thinking about things accumulating.  Not only things like papers in the office, but also things like choices and things you need and good health.

I wrote a guest post for a friend about this, which will be up in about a week, so I won't elaborate here.

Except to say, so few things in life are done in one fell swoop.

Relationships, the Tupperware in the cupboard replacing the Cool Whip containers I used in our poor days, sewing skills, discretion, the collection of quirky little chickens on the kitchen shelf.  All accumulated little by little, taking advantage of the moments, over a long time.

*****
Quote of the Day:
I was sick in bed with bronchitis.  Emily was tagging bags at the warehouse and came home with a headful of dust.  She wondered if there was anything she could do about it.
Me: [croaking] Have you ever used a Yeti pot?
Emily: ???
Me: NETI !!!  A Neti pot!!
Emily: Well, I guess a Yeti needs a place to go too.
Me: [strangled laughter]