A Summer Story
Now that Summer is upon us, I think of a story my Dad tells about the time some high school boys hired on to help him and my uncle bale hay down at our farm. One of the boys was sweet on my first cousin, and he must have talked his two buddies into joining him one hot Summer to spend a day out in the pastures tossing hay bales onto the truck. I imagine they wanted to show their muscle and strut a little, maybe even see how they measured up to the old farmer dads who must have seemed absolutely ancient and doubtless feeble compared to themselves.
Everyone arrived at the farm and met up at the Tims’ Place pole barn, which stood empty waiting to be stacked twenty feet high full of golden square bales. The barn was already there (and already old) when my dad and uncle bought this place from Mr. Tims. For years they had raised cattle on these pastures, but around the time I was born, they sold all the cows and started to cut the place for hay.
The men and the boys gathered and readied for the day’s work. The men with pants and long-sleeved work shirts looked over the fields. The boys liked the warm morning and thought the brightening sun deserved their full physical offering, so they took their shirts off. The men sipped water and hitched up the baling machine to the tractor. The boys generously applied heaps of chewing tobacco till their cheeks were as bulging as they fancied their biceps to be. The grass gave a lanky wave.
By noon they stopped for a lunch break, and if I know my Dad at all, this would likely consist of a coke and a twinkie. If you’re lucky you get your own twinkie. If you’re really lucky there’ll be a pack of nabs. As an aside, do you know what “nabs” are? This is what we always call a pack of peanut butter crackers you’d get at a gas station in the South. I think Nabisco (National Biscuit Company) first marketed them in the early part of the last century. I don’t know if they officially called them nabs or if people just came up with that themselves. At any rate, nabs and a twinkie? Splurging.
So, after a coke and half a twinkie in the middle of a Mississippi Summer day after just a handful of hours hay hauling, too tough for water, the high school strut-buddies were looking a little bit less than impressive. In fact, it wasn’t long before, half sick from tobacco and sunburn, they were laid up in the pole barn or doubled over behind it losing what little lunch they’d had.
What made it even worse was my cute first cousin, who’d come to witness the majesty of high school masculinity, witnessed instead our three heroes hauled over to the hay to lay like lanky grass themselves – cut off in its prime. (This story has a bit of poetic justice, if you know the word “bale” in its roots can mean the puffing up of masculine pride.) Meanwhile, the “old” farmers finished the workday in their stride, just one more amidst a lifetime of like days and like work.
A Boy in the Barn
I can’t make too much fun of those boys though, since they certainly did better than I would have. I am the last of four children, and by the time I was farm-work age, the hay pastures had been planted in pine trees and the pole barn was a catch-all for various equipment, an old yellow refrigerator (plugged into nothing), and a four-wheeler.
One of my fondest memories as a very small child is just being around the farm while the work was going on. The pole barn would begin to fill up with square blocks of hay, and as it did, a kind of prickly, sweet-smelling playground would mount. I would climb and hide amidst the dusty bales, occasionally spy a field mouse skittering through, and sometimes I’d slip way, way down through a little kid-sized gap to the dirt floor and clamber my way back up to freedom – sweating, itching like crazy, and happy.
Years later, after the hay bales were gone, I’d play on the floor of that same pole barn luring antlions from their little dust-funnel lairs with a twig. Hundreds of those little lairs pocked the floor so that you felt like you were scouring the lunar surface, each crater the hidey-hole of something strange and wonderful. The same way a spider fidgets when her web is disturbed, antlions wait for something to slip down the side through the fine dust of their funnel. I liked to see them peep out and check in case someone was ringing their dinner bell.
A couple of years ago, I took a Dodge Sprinter van (think: tall FedEx truck) and converted the empty cargo space into a tiny house on wheels for music tours. I tried very hard to finish the bulk of the work before Summertime hit, because I knew I’d better take advantage of the reasonable Spring temperatures while they lasted. Sometime mid-Summer I marked the temperature at 96°F and the humidity not far behind at about 90% with not a cloud in the sky. What I’m saying is that Summer in Mississippi is thick with heat. You can feel it press against your body. There’s so much moisture in the air sweat has nowhere to go and does little good. Somebody in a field somewhere was tossing square bales into a truck in that heat, I’m sure.
Summer in the City
But the hardest I’ve ever worked and the most I’ve ever sweated was on a roof in Memphis a couple of Summers right after college at a camp called SOS (Service Over Self). It’s an urban home repair camp. Now, I grew up going to church every Sunday with my family, but Jesus met me in a way I’ll never forget at a Summer camp in Missouri called Soaring Hawk when I was nine years old. I still remember the name of the camp counselor who led me to the Lord (After, in a fit earlier that day I’d cussed at him swinging my fists, it was apparent I needed the sweet, sweet love of God).
Maybe because camp had been so important to me as a kid, I ended up working at SOS in Memphis? My first Summer there they stuck me on a roof with a new high school youth group every week for eight weeks. What would take a professional work crew a few days, took us all Summer. I’ve never gone through so much sunscreen, drunk so much water, or appreciated a Schwan’s strawberry popsicle so much.
I learned a lot that Summer about working hard; I learned I’d never done it before!
I ended up working there for six Summers total, I think. Imagine fifty of us working with about two hundred campers a week under exhausting circumstances. It could either be great or a train wreck. It’s hard to explain, but there was a supernatural cooperation among us, and being a part of it identified a vast hunger in me for communion that I’ve never been able to shake. Why? Because I knew the kind of loving unity I saw happening day in and day out was not a human achievement.
Now, every Sunday in church we recite the Nicene Creed, and lately I’ve been struck by the title ascribed to God the Holy Spirit. He’s called “The Lord, the Giver of Life.” Anything that lives, lives because of some contact with the Holy Spirit at some remove; there is no life apart from the Lord, the Giver of Life. The community I experienced that Summer could only be possible if we were all singing the same tune, all harkening to the same Holy Spirit. Like a hive of honeybees working in unity, humming in harmony. It was astonishing and beautiful. To be filled with the Spirit is to have life that is truly life – for light to ignite the honey. As hard and exhausting as it was, being deeply joined by God’s Spirit in the beauty of the work during that season of my life remains, for me, a touchstone of joy.
Summer and the Speech of Joy
Everything God has lovingly spoken into being is, in its own way, speaking his love back. Does God, in creating, teach each thing its tongue to declare its part in his praise? The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says that each mortal thing deals out that being that dwells inside it; by being what it is, it declares itself along with whatever invested beauty Christ gave it at Creation. Everything, if it lives truly, “Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye [it] is — Christ…” Whether its a bird, a dragonfly, a stone, a bell, you or me.
Those Summers at camp really were seasons of joy. Every season has its own language, its own way of translating joy on its own terms. Maybe Winter is apophatic, suggesting joy by joy’s absence. For us, Advent and Christmas come in the hiddenness of a small town stable. Even by chill starlight in obscurity, Joy is being born in Winter. Spring climbs the branches and swings in the open air, blooming upon the face of the earth. Autumn gilds the years of memory laid up with the gold of promise – there is more beneath the green as it fails. What about Summer? How does Summer mean?
How does this season of Summer that we are in “act in God’s eye” what it is? What does it say from God back to God about God? Maybe that’s like trying to get Treebeard to say the Entish name for ‘hill’? In that one hasty word is crammed the wash of uncounted years and all the moments of memory caught their flow. Summer too. It is sweet tea, watermelon, sweat and hay, harvest, hive-hum, and on and on.
Still, if there is a point of coherence where whatever Summer is trying to say comes through most clearly, it is in a richness, a vigor before the Fall, just before the long Winter. Those high school boys are close to being older now than my dad and uncle were on that hot day of hauling hay. The colors beneath the green are emerging for them, and my father’s generation wonders each year whether there is enough wood on the woodpile to last another Winter. But wherever we are, the Spirit of God speaks joy. No matter the season the same Good Word crops up. Here, in Summer, is the sunlight igniting the dalliant droop of warm honey. Here, in Summer, is what the Spring promised.
The Holiday is here!
There is a child at play in the hay bales. There is the wise work of the farmers at the peak of their strength. There is a boy teasing antlions in the pole barn, and the bees delighting in the hive – all free in the company of the Giver of Life. The haymakers harvest in the season of incandescent honey, the labourers stack bales like stones in the Father’s storehouse – which is a temple: which is a city: which is a playground…. which is every good thing that grew and died here, now become food to fuel the building of the new realm of righteousness.
And, it turns out, God himself is the preeminent child at play, according to Chesterton, for “we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we are.” There is childlikeness before all things. We are little antlions burrowed in the dust at the bottom of our funnel, and God is the little boy tickling the edges of our self-constructed universe, ringing the dinner bell to come feast with and on himself. As the world once rose at his command time before time, the Great and youthful Father who, unlike us, still keeps the ‘eternal appetite of infancy’ will clap his hands and say, “Do it again!” and a New Heaven and a New Earth will appear. Blessed be He!
So this is the tale that Summer tells in all of its myriad unfoldings. Each season whispers a word conceived in secret, grown into syllables like ripples breathed upon the water, until waking one day, we find the school term ended, the trumpet’s bell ringing joy in every tongue, “The Holiday without end has begun! Come and play!”
We are grateful for Vardan’s visual captures and his generosity in sharing his beautiful work.