Friday, January 28, 2011

Life Undivided: Walking Home

What do these things have in common?
  • a man sitting in the grass, playing his guitar and singing to a seven or eight children
  • a sign reading “Warning: High Drug Trafficking Area. Do Not Loiter”
  • fragments of all kinds: pieces of vinyl albums, newspapers, and once, a gun
  • a pony
  • magnolia, crepe myrtle, live oak, and pecan trees
  • men and women gathering pecans into plastic grocery bags
  • goats 

Answer: Each item appears on my “Seen While Walking to Church in Waco” list. 

During my first two years in Texas, I lived about a mile and a half from my church, and during those years, I only drove to Sunday worship four or five times. Every other Sunday, I walked.  While this record may seem quirky or counter-cultural, for me it was intuitive.  Growing up, my family lived barely three blocks from our church, and in college, I attended the church that was across the street from my dorm room.  I did not own a car until I moved to Texas for graduate school, and so while I could have driven to any number of churches, I first visited congregations within walking distance (I had several good choices; this is Texas, after all). My trek to Calvary Baptist was longer than either my childhood or college walks, but I came to treasure those Sunday mornings.  Though very thankful for a reliable car, I have never enjoyed driving, and Sunday became a day I could rest from the rush and worry of controlling an automobile (or automobeast, as I used to call them). 
My view of Colcord Avenue on a typical Sunday morning. The blue is the underside of my parasol--a necessity for walking on a summer day in Texas. 

I mention these walks, and the strange list they helped me compile, because as I continue to ruminate on what makes a place home, I have realized that home is a place I walk. For most of my life, it has also been a place from whence I walk to church. When I moved to my current apartment, I was much closer to campus, the river, the city park, and many other good things, but I could no longer continue my Sunday ambles (Rising at five am to walk across town doesn’t make me feel very reverent). Losing those walks, however, made me realize how important they were to making this city home.

The benefits of walking through the this city for so long makes that curious inventory precious to me. Week after week, I walked the same route: from Maple Avenue to Colcord, from Colcord through a little web of back streets that brought me to the church building. From a car, this route is hardly lovely: a few blocks of stately houses soon gives way to shabbier buildings, unkempt yards, overgrown lots, and at least one intersection with a bad reputation. There are few reasons to linger if you are simply passing from one side of town to another. 

By walking, however, I had the time to see and know this place.  The broken things I saw, whether weapons or windows, frightened me, but gave me prayers for my neighborhood. The trees and the people and the goats became familiar and beautiful.  Eventually, the women on their porches or the guys working on their cars would say hello, asking me, “You goin’ to church?”

I never did learn the story behind the pony. 

Walking used to be my primary mode of transportation--not only to church, but to school, the grocery store, or any other place I needed to be. In college, my church was on a hill, and I would let myself wander for miles in any direction, knowing I could find my way back once I caught sight of the steeple. Both in Indiana and Tennessee, I often walked to the places where I worked, studied, and shopped. While dating both my high school and college boyfriends, we spent most of our time together rambling through neighborhoods around our houses.  These walks always lasted for hours, and even now I somehow expect to see those bright boys whenever I return to one of those Indiana streets. 

But there is something particularly beautiful about walking from house to church, knowing that with every step I am treading both to and from home.  I used to joke that living alone took all the fun out of being an introvert, but my Sunday walks invariably restored the joy of solitude, blessing me with the tension between walking alone and worshipping together.

Perhaps I can put this all another way: home is a place I reach with weary feet, a place I rest and realize that my hair smells like a February wind. Home is a place I leave in order to arrive. Home is a place I am content in solitude and in community. Home is a place I know what is ugly and notice what is beautiful. 

Home is a place it takes a long time to reach, a place I can see and name long before I arrive.  

Monday, January 10, 2011

Making it Home: How Does Your Garden Grow?

It runs counter to my Midwestern intuitions to reflect on gardening during the “dead” of winter, but I live in Texas now, and last week's enormous harvest of collard greens reminded me that I have been planning a post on gardens for several months.  
In 2010, I learned that home is a place we plant gardens. Although the daughter of a man who revels in dirt and seed and harvest,  I had done little more than tend houseplants (and poorly, at that) until last year.  My church began a Community Garden in February, and later in the spring, some friends and I began our own plot in a spare corner of our apartment complex’s property. 
These earth-experiments attracted me for several reasons: I thought participating in a garden would support my efforts to eat only in-season produce; I needed a  reason to spend more time outside; and I looked forward to working with others on a shared project.  A less conscious but more powerful reason, however, is that I cannot remember a time when my childhood home did not have a flourishing garden in the summer. Ironically, for most of my childhood I disliked tomatoes, squash, and many other good things that grew in the garden, but my pickiness did not undermine my association of “home” with a place where things grew and were eaten, where summer nights were spent seeking ripe tomatoes, and where my father would often walk a wheelbarrow full of vegetables to our church so friends could take as much as they pleased.
Those Indiana gardens manifested some of the best things about my father--his love of growing things (both botanical and human), his delight in nature, his generosity--and as I reflect on my novice dirt-dabbling, I find that many of my experiences finding a home in Waco have parallels in the garden. 
With my father in the garden, circa 1987
Both gardens have reminded me how thankful I am that my home is also the home of others--definitely-kindred, remarkably-unlike-me others.  The day we broke ground for the community garden, I enjoyed a perfect balance of solitude and community, sometimes concentrating all my energy on clots of wet soil I was breaking up, and at other times discussing everything from theology to television with the person working next to me. The apartment garden was a joint project between me and two couples--Jon and Steph, Taylor and Rachel.  Working with Jon and Taylor on the garden was a study in personality differences--had I been making the garden on my own, I would have planned for months, fretted over asking permission to use our complex’s property, and probably never would have planted anything at all. Taylor and Jon, however, wasted no time, and they were tilling the soil long before I had finished debating whether it would be better to call or write our apartment manager for permission.  We planted our first rows on an unusually cool day in May, and as I made mounds for squash and Jon prepared rows for corn, with Taylor hacking away at the tall grasses that obstructed an inlet of the river, I was both proud and thankful to have such friends. 
The gardens have also reminded me that being really at home in a place involves constant care--housekeeping, if I may use the word broadly. Until we realized there was a hose and spigot within reach of the garden, we watered our plants with buckets of water drawn from the Brazos river.  The river is about thirty or forty yards from our plot, and it usually took me three buckets-full to water everything. I would lean out from a concrete pier, toss my bright pink bucket four to six feet down into the water, and then haul it up with a rope. It seemed to be an absurd amount of work for a few rows of parched vegetables, but as I labored with those heavy, sloshing buckets, I realized that I was experiencing something very ordinary for most women throughout history--the difficult and even dangerous work of collecting the water needed to sustain a home and family. My great-grandmother, a teenage bride on the Mississippi delta, had to walk for miles to gather water from a reliable well, and all over the world today, many girls and women spend hours of their days carrying water.  Although even I am not Luddite enough to prefer buckets to hoses, I appreciate learning from my sore muscles and unsteady bones that home, like any other garden, must be tended consistently and carefully. Furthermore, in order to tend it, one must often defy distance, impatience, and even gravity.
These gardens have also taught me that the harvest is not always what we expect, any more than the homes we build as adults will resemble the pictures we carried or created from childhood. For most of the summer and fall, our apartment garden disappointed dreams of lavish salads and salsas: we gathered pitiful tomatoes, scanty bell peppers, and a pittance of purple-hull peas. The only thing we had in abundance was okra, the titan of our little world, overshadowing everything else. Far more satisfying was the harvest of neighbors our project brought.  We live in a quiet apartment complex, and, as in many such places, the residents do not go out of their way to meet one another. However, the garden provided a wonderful way to meet our neighbors. Sheila, a grandmother who lives on the first floor, joined with us and contributed several squash plants. Several times while weeding, I was hailed by Sophilia, a law student reading on her balcony.  She had noticed the plot and knew Taylor and Rachel, and when I explained what we were doing, she exclaimed, “Oh my gosh! You guys are such hippies!” For the rest of the fall, I would look forward to talking with Sophilia and her roommate on my way to the garden. Daniel, who was using the hose to wash his kayak when we first met, now brings the hose down to me when I am among the peppers and greens, making suggestions for our spring planting. Les and Katie, who have four children and coach youth baseball, ask how the peas are doing when we meet at the mailbox. From these small but precious encounters, I am reminded that people are more at home with one another when they have some common thing--whether a tiny garden or a book or an ideal--to consider, to protect, or to love. 
And now I am enjoying a winter harvest--something I never experienced from my father’s northern garden. In spite of the dislocation and uncertainty that have shadowed my efforts to build a home in Texas and in my twenties, suddenly I am faced with a marvel: in a season I once thought dead, food flourishes in the dirt.  I never thought collard greens could be so profound.
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. (Jeremiah 29.4-5 ESV)
Do you keep a garden? What do you grow? 

P.S. In honor of these gardens (and of National Soup Month), I am sharing the recipe I invented to use the greens I now have in abundance.  This was a use-what-I-have-on-hand experiment, so feel free to adjust according to your pantries. If you don’t have wheat berries, you might try using barley or pinto beans. 
Collard and Potato Soup
1 T olive oil
5 cloves minced garlic
6 cups vegetable stock 
5 small potatoes, peeled and sliced
1 cup wheat berries 
6-8 large collard and/or chard leaves, coarsely chopped (about 2-3 cups)
1/2 - 1 T Worcestershire sauce (adjust to taste)
1/8 t cayenne pepper
1-2 t sea salt or kosher  
fresh ground pepper

Heat the olive oil in a large (4-5 qt) saucepan or dutch oven. Add garlic and saute until golden. Add broth and bring to a boil.  Add potatoes and wheat berries. Reduce heat and simmer until wheat berries are tender (about 45 minutes). Add Worcestershire, cayenne, and salt. Adjust seasonings to taste. Add greens, cook until wilted (about 10 minutes). Garnish with pepper. 

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Christmas Storytime: The Snow Queen, Conclusion

I fully intended to conclude my reading of "The Snow Queen" within the Twelve Days of Christmas, but I was happily busy with contemplation, family, and travel until Epiphany.  However, since neither my conscience nor my aesthetic has much patience for unfinished stories, I am now posting the remaining installments of "The Snow Queen." These were recorded back in Texas, in my kitchen on a cold and rainy January night.  I hope you enjoy these. I'm especially fond of Part 5, which features a little robber girl who is both murderous and kind-hearted.
The Fourth Story, In Which Appear a Prince and a Princess

The Fifth Story, Which Is About The Robber Girl

The Sixth Story: The Lapp Woman and the Finnish Woman

The Seventh Story: What Happened In The Snow Queen's Palace and Afterward

What do you think of the conclusion of the story? What do you make of Kai's "game of reason" and Gerda's power to rescue him?