Most of the farmers I know are poets. There is poetry in dirt and seasons and calves being born and butchering day and manure and seeds and cold mornings with cows bellowing and the itch of hay chaff in the linings of a pair of well-worn gloves. You need to have some lines scratched on your soul to keep going with the sun rising and rain clouds on the horizon and where the seasons are always changing and before they do you need to have hay in or fields turned or fences up. You have the makings of a poet when something in your drudgery is beautiful to your soul and when your helplessness doesn’t keep you from doing the next thing.
I remember an old, blue Leyland tractor, the doors to the cab wired shut for double protection against being bumped open. Four of us could fit when it was time to ted the hay; little boys with baseball caps and t-shirt tans standing on either side of me. I focused on gears and getting the speed of spinning forks just right to spread the rows of hay into fluffy piles to dry without beating them into dust. The clacks and rumble would put the baby strapped to my chest to sleep and I would feel her breathe and the sweat would stick us into one, round, flesh again. Once in a while a boy would point and shout about a bird or that he wanted to get out the next time we came nearest the house so he could run to the cool basement and retrieve a popsicle from the big freezer. Mostly though, thoughts just jostled around in our minds and often even there a quiet settled. A quiet that is hard to achieve when you wake up early to pray and you remember about the phone call you need to make before noon and that you are low on milk and maybe the kids will be okay with toast instead of cereal and what will you need to print out for the history lesson today? While the tractor made circles, my spinning thoughts, like the drying timothy and clover, fell into rows of order and rest.
We planted a huge garden in long rows on the farm. At the end of June I stood in the middle of a mass of overgrown weeds and searched for rows and vegetables and paths. Life was everywhere but it was choking out what was planned and worked for and supposed to be in jars in the pantry come fall. I cried overwhelmed, frustrated, disappointed tears and knew I couldn’t catch up. On the first of July we had strawberry shortcake for my birthday and then headed out to the garden where my husband pulled weeds and chubby hands pulled weeds and I pulled weeds with a baby in one arm. And there was a path and sun on tomatoes and a heap of weeds to compost.
This spring I planted a little raised-bed garden here in the woods. There were ample sticks to mark my rows of onions and hills of squash and even though the soil is rocky, I have hopes for jars in the pantry this fall. This little garden patch feels manageable. But, as I planted seeds in rows I remembered something a friend said recently. ‘Gardening is just another form of dependency.’ We plant seeds but we are at the mercy of the Life-giver to make them grow. I think of how the same brown dirt grows a deep, purple-red beet, a firm white potato, and leafy, green lettuce. This is a deeper magic than can be conjured with a watering can and a hoe.
A little boy asked if he could help and I gave him a row of beans to plant. He took a fistful of seeds and worked his way down the row. There were more rows to plant but he’d had his fill and happily bounded off to ride his bike. I was left alone with the packet of seeds and thought about how this is a hobby. If the beans don’t grow there is the grocery store and they’re cheap to buy and nine year old boys used to plant beans or else they went without. For a minute I wondered if I should call him back.
When I became a mother I didn’t have time to read for pleasure. There were parenting books to read and how-to-have-happy-perfectly-lovely-successful-children manuals. And the sun shone and the rains came and I was crying overwhelmed tears on my bed and I knew that children don’t grow in neat rows and around us and in us there’s a wildness that makes me afraid the harvest won’t be what I had once dreamed. I don’t have the deep magic to make people grow and the manuals don’t hold the right spells either.
Seven times I’ve been handed a baby, like a seed, fresh and new and unknown. And, each time, my heart wanted to break through me and cover them with fierce love like a thick, rich soil blanketing them from the elements. But soil is just a place to grow roots. It is stretched and moved and changed in its nourishing of the new life. In the love and the breaking and the helplessness, my children have grown me into a mother-poet, leaning hard into the only Life Grower.
There are days when I feel overwhelmed. Like the weeds are going to take over. There are nine of us growing together and there are messes and hurt feelings and school work that sits unfinished along with the dishes. Daily I’m aware of my powerlessness to change hearts or to force kindness or to speed up maturity or to make our lives neat and orderly and safe.
But, a mother-poet leans into the deep magic of the Life Grower.
The lines scratched on my soul are changing from ‘keep them safe’ or ‘’raise good kids” into ‘tend them faithfully’ and ‘love them well’. It’s the knowledge that the only thing I have to offer is the gospel that I still need myself.
The gospel that makes me a mother living moment by moment by moment leaning into grace, offering grace, pleading for grace. It takes me out of the ‘what will be’ and into the ‘what is now’. It is the prayer and the grace to understand the seasons. To know the time to shelter, to plant, to weed and to water; to keep them close and speak truth and discipline and to shower with loving-kindnesses. And to know the seasons to let the plants break through the soil; to bear the pain of release over and over and over again. It’s learning to trust, to do the next thing, to lean hard into the Life Grower. That Great Poet writing His story, bearing His fruit, reaping His harvest, in each of our farmer-mother-child souls.