Updated: Apr 28, 2020
Lately I’ve been dreaming about my childhood. I grew up in the middle of farm country in central Pennsylvania, where it was never unusual to see an Amish horse and buggy bandying about town. Just beyond my back yard and my mother’s enormous rhubarb bush was a corn field as far as I could see. During the summer, my friends and I would run between the rows and let our imagination run wild. The giant tractor tilling the ground would play the role of mortal enemy in one of our favorite games, “Runaways.” When it stormed and we had to bid adieu, I would sit safely on my porch and watch the sky light up the field with bolts of electricity from heaven above. Not knowing when I’d hear the next crack of thunder was as exhilarating as it was startling. And then, the next day, we’d be right back out in the mud.
I remember the feel of it in my hands, a little like clay, smooth but not without grit. The earth felt clean, honest, and reliable. I never wanted to wash it off. Between the prickly stalks of corn, we runaways would make a “soup” from that honest dirt and whatever else we could find- sticks and husks, and if we were lucky, leftover kernels not ensnared in the harvest. Then dare each other to eat it. Sometimes though, there was no corn, no harvest, no John Deer to run from with glee. My beloved soil was being allowed to rest. As I got older, I learned that this happened with regularity. The field, like myself after a day of play, was tired, and needed to recover before bursting forth with life again.
During these times of repose, the farmer himself would travel door to door, selling banana bread and muffins his wife made. He was a quiet man, though quick with a joke, and yes, he was as Rockwellian as you can imagine. Grey, unkempt hair sneaking out beneath his cap, skin leathered by the sun, twinkly eyes, and overalls. Always overalls. I remember him walking slowly and thinking how remarkable that was considering the acreage he maintained. Of course, he’d been doing this his whole life, and had probably learned to walk slowly between chores to prevent, or at least flatten the curve of, fatigue. Farmers understand the importance of rest, and extending that rest to the land, lest crops grow weakly, if at all. The ground needs time to remineralize. To restore it’s vitamins. To weather a few storms without anything else to do but be soil. That’s it. Be still. And wait. And in the waiting, too subtle for the naked eye to observe, the richness returns, and the soil is yet again ready to produce. That’s why he in the overalls was never hurried: every moment had it’s purpose, and was valuable.
Maybe thats why I’ve been dreaming about my childhood. It was a slower time. And yet it still made sense. I’m feeling the echoes of that pace in my life now, but I’m searching for the sense. And my imagination is out of practice. It lacks stamina. What do I do with myself? Who even am I if I am not doing? As if in the absence of doing, I cease to exist. And if I do not exist, does it even matter? A chill runs up my spine and with it a jagged little truth I’d rather ignore. Somewhere along the way, I began to believe that I needed to keep moving in order to earn my right to be here, to be alive. Earn it? Am I Private Ryan? I feel exposed, right here in my living room. And now that I am acutely aware that so many of my actions are intended to justify my very existence— what do I do about it?
It occurs to me: Right now we are the field during a period of rest. We are weathering a storm full of the loudest thunder and lighting that flashes so frequently we’re nauseated by fear. The downpour is calling into question the foundations of many identities we called home. There is no autopilot. The metronome of “normal” has been rendered silent. The plates have stopped spinning, and the Yankees have hung up their stripes. It will be impossible to un-see some of the truths of our lives that we’ve been conveniently, consistently overlooking, even by the most fantastic emotional contortionist. What we do with those jagged little truths is up to us, but if any part of me is still an optimist, I’m certain they are here to set us free.
We perceive the pace of this interrupted world as stagnant, and therefore surely dead or at least dying. Our politicizing and protesting illustrates how deeply we doubt the value of not “doing.” But actually, painfully, we are. We’re remineralizing, which, it’s worth pointing out, can look or feel or sound or smell or taste any way it damn pleases. It’s not our job to perfect how we ride out this interruption. Even if we had predicted it, there was no way of knowing how we might react to the sudden new reality; so we grieve and reflect, exhale and look forward, feel guilty for the moments we’re not ready for this to end, frustrated when it feels like it never will.
It’s understandable, the fever pitch of this frustration. All we can see right now is what we have lost. And loss is easier to quantify. We had it, after all, so we know exactly the shape of its ghost. So much harder is it to believe that we will recover. So much harder is it to imagine what could step into this newly vacated space. So much harder is it to have faith that whatever arrives next could be just as valuable to us, or even more so.
Someone clears their throat from the back of the room and we reflexively roll our eyes. We know who it is. The irritating Unknown has come to visit once again. We never remember inviting them in, and usually deny that really, they’ve been here the whole time. Instead, we spread rumors that Unknown’s nickname ought to be “Uncomfortable,” because that’s how their gift-wrapping skills make us feel. Mostly we’d like them to leave because it dampens one of our favorite grown-up games, “We’re in control.”
Farmers use almanacs each year to plan how and when they will plant their crops. How much fertilizer they might need, and how many projected times they might mutter, “damn crows.” The periodicals can be so shockingly accurate that some brides even consult them when arranging their wedding. Shockingly accurate… but not always accurate. I was a bridesmaid at one such celebration, where a sunny 72 degrees turned into a drizzly 67. After the ceremony, the bridal party rushed out to take photos whenever the rain stopped, all the while aerating that gorgeous soil underfoot, whose grass smelled fresh and pure. We hadn’t known each other well before. But now, between the vain attempts to keep the train of the dress dry, we laughed. We made jokes. We accepted the limitations of our hairspray. We danced the night away— but not before a blessed smoker rushed inside during dinner. The clouds had finally moved on, and a beautiful rainbow had taken their place. New photos against a rainbow. New photos against one of the most brilliant sunsets I have ever seen. My favorites shots, of course, are the candids that captured the eyes inescapably filled with sheer exhilaration and glee. Even our imaginations were caught by surprise.
Impatient though I was as a child, eventually the soil would birth tiny green buds in the shape of hope and grow stalks denser and more tenacious than before, reaching higher than any elephant’s eye, climbing unabashedly toward the sky. The alchemy was complete, and in the end, without much analysis. The earth trusted itself, and became whole once again. This is when the corn was always at its sweetest. At the moment, our field is still at rest, still absorbing the downpour from above, but it will be over soon. We will be here, weathered and strengthened, ready to burst forth once again.