From this summer of heavy burdens, we emerge stronger
By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
SEPT. 13, 2015
About seven years ago I directed a Christmas play called “Why the Chimes Rang.” It began as a good idea for a school program but turned into a bad-dream project that muddled on and on. Every aspect of it, from the singing to the costumes to the behavior at rehearsals, steadily degenerated into chaos as time went on.
That’s how it’s seared into my memory, at least, 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 I had a sense of humor, and the girl who played this part was not easily discouraged, because for some reason she could not recite that line.
“Oh I am so tired and hungry!” she would say before collapsing into the snowbank, a pile of quilt batting from the sewing circle, covered with a white sheet.
Back up the aisle I sent her. A slow turn, 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 that she ever got it right, even on the night of the program. I should have let her ad lib. Who would have noticed?
Sometimes, in certain seasons of life, it feels like we’re all weary and cold, fighting our way into the winter wind. Our shawl isn’t nearly enough protection, and we are about to collapse into the snowbank with the baby in our arms.
At such times, life is just a lot of hard slogging, on and on, one step after another. We grow weary in body, which makes us extra weary and cold in spirit as well. It seems 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.
Health issues, difficult relationships, financial stresses, caregiving — all of these can seem like trials that will never end.
This hot, dry summer, paradoxically, has been a season of wintry weariness of soul.
Just by definition, summer in farming country is exhausting: long days on a combine, seed-cleaning machines running around the clock, ripe peaches dropping from trees and needing to be canned today, hungry animals, thirsty gardens, and never quite enough energy to reach around.
With its record dryness and heat, this summer seemed especially endless and difficult. The grass died, the lilac leaves — normally hardy through the heat of August — started curling in July, and the potted flowers on the porch wilted as soon as my back was turned.
The calves’ pasture turned brown and we supplemented with sacks of feed. The waiting grass fields became ripe not only for harvest but also for any stray spark that would ignite and destroy them. We turned on sprinklers to keep the pasture grass and flower beds alive, but the well kept running dry.
With extra responsibilities, such as taking in my dad for six weeks, two bouts of bronchitis and weeks of recovery that made a normal day’s work feel like climbing Mount Hood, I found it the most challenging summer in years. The rest of the family, busy with jobs, harvest and summer classes, was unable to pick up the slack.
Daily life became a hard climb uphill, day after day.
I sensed that I was not the only one short on rest, facing relentless demands, and losing the sense of joy that normally comes with summer.
For my family, summer meant sacking seed at night and sleeping restlessly in the heat and noise of the day; studying for tests for summer college courses late at night; stocking shelves while friends were swimming in the river; and fixing worn-out belts and motors high in a dusty warehouse in motionless heat.
Harvest ended, but the heat continued. We watched, helpless and horrified, as fires burned all over the Northwest. We waited and prayed for rain. The smoke burned our eyes and made us feel surrounded by a fog of poison.
I’ve found in summers past that young people with long hours of alone time on combines and in deserted warehouses end up with too much time to think and no outside voices to counter the inner noise. Regret, addictions, depression — whatever the weakness, it shows up here. Sometimes it’s just a weird outlook on life, and they start having arguments in their heads with "all the stupid people on NPR" or with Rush Limbaugh or "that opinionated sports show host."
Then they think, “Wait. I am arguing with people on the radio.”
It’s the season when people apologize. I first noticed this years ago, when a young friend was driving combine and then wrote me a note explaining that she’s afraid she left the wrong impression, but really she meant this and not that, and she feels very badly about her mistake.
Combine syndrome, I named it, that strange summer struggle of the soul. I tried to encourage my children and their friends, “It’s just a hard season, right now, and a tough trail. Be gentle with yourself.”
The day I found myself lecturing a Hollywood celebrity, I knew I had a bad case of combine syndrome of my own. It was one of those silly stories that takes over the news feeds, something I would ignore in saner times, but there I was, forming a speech in my head to set them straight.
I laughed at myself, which is what you learn to do at my age, especially if the choice is down to laughing or crying. I also went back to reading my Bible more, my anchor of sanity in the crazy times. I recommended it to the combine-driving and seed-sacking and exhausted people in my life as well, even if it’s only an encouraging verse tacked above the bagger. “... be strong and do not give up, for your work will be rewarded.” Or this one from Galatians: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
“And,” I said, “You need to talk with real people with real voices who speak real words to you.”
I took my own advice one morning, cooking oatmeal for my dad and then escaping to Jake’s Café in Harrisburg to meet my friend Gina for breakfast. Those two hours were like a large Iced Kicker from Dutch Bros. on a 100-degree day on an un-air-conditioned tractor.
At least I knew this, among all the hot days and the dry straw swirling and the threat of fire — the season eventually ends. I’ve been here before, and I know. It doesn’t last forever.
This was my survival message to myself and all my weary loved ones: “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.
“The day will come when the sackers won’t be working night shift anymore, 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.”
Eventually, a cloudy day turned into showers and then an actual rain. The brittle lilacs got a drink at last, the lawn turned a timid green overnight, and the air cleared of that lingering smoke.
Even when it seems they’ll last forever, hard journeys do eventually finish, when the time is right. You reach the front of the church and remember your line, or at least get it close enough, and the long slow walk is done at last, and the chimes ring out in the ancient belfry.
As you sit on the pew and rest, you know that it was scary and hard and it seemed it would never end, but it finally did, and you are stronger, better, wiser, and braver for what you’ve just been through.