The remembered mercy of broken things

This is a guest post by Thomas Springer.

Brett’s 1/2 –ton pickup, righteously dented and rusted per farm truck specifications, backed into our barn driveway on a winter Saturday with a special delivery. Attached to the rear hitch was an empty flat-bed trailer that was long enough to carry another entire pick-up if necessary.

“That’s a pretty big rig just to haul 50 lbs. of frozen meat in,” I hollered, over the phlegmy cough of the truck’s exhaust.

“It would be,” Brett said, “if this was my only stop. But I’m headed to Muncie (Indiana) for a load of hay after this. I found it on Craig’s List. There’s none around here because of the drought. They want $100 for a round bale if you can believe it.”

It was a custom delivery from Brett and Debbie Green’s M&M Beefalo farm in nearby Mendon. The packages we unloaded were frozen so hard that they clanked like porcelain dishes when we stacked them in the freezer.

A beefalo is two-thirds cattle and one-third buffalo. It’s leaner than cattle, but with a wilder, more complex flavor. Brett feeds his animals hay, pasture grass, green corn stalks, some grain and even over-ripe watermelons when he can get them. But no growth hormones. They live a clean, happy life, until, as farmer/writer Joel Salatin says “they have one bad day at the end of it.”

“I hope this batch lasts you!” said Brett with a conspiratorial grin.

We usually buy a ¼ of a beefalo from him each fall, but this year we needed a second order. That’s because misfortune intervened — although that’s a secret heretofore known only to me, my wife, a few family members, and now, our cattleman.

It befell us on a Saturday evening in July, one of those lingering, saffron-twilight interludes that’s perfect for grilling burgers over hardwood coals in the backyard. As I fiddled with stick matches and kindling to start the fire, I asked Emily to retrieve two packages of 1/3 lb. patties from the freezer in the barn.

“Be sure to shut the freezer door tight!” I instructed. I said it in a shrill, fatherly tone, born of the time-tested expectation that such dictates often fall on deaf ears. Seconds later Emily sailed passed with packages in hand, ran them to the house and within a minute was back outside on her trampoline.

After a quick defrost in the microwave the meat was soon asizzle on the wood-fired grill. It’s an imprecise operation. There’s no control knob on an open fire, no steel burners to ensure an even distribution of heat and flame. So you’re forever flipping here and nudging there to center the meat between the too-hot spots and the too-cold spots. You know the patties are ready when the muddy brown “done” juice seeps out and dangles from the grill’s underside like a high-protein stalactite.

While campfire cooking in mid-summer makes for a lot of sweating and squatting, the eldest daughter’s imprimatur during dinner made it all worthwhile.

“Dad,” her eminence pronounced, “these are the best burgers.”

And so they are. Beefalo patties, even when cooked well-done as my wife insists hers be, retain a ruddy color and rich flavor. Garnish with pickles, garden lettuce and home-grown tomatoes and you’ve got a fast, slow-food that can — mirabile dictu! — make an American teen forego the Golden Arches.

Not until the next afternoon did I realize that this would be our last beefalo cookout of the summer and fall season.

I was mowing by the barn when an ominous thought came to mind: “Had I checked the freezer door last night?”

It’s an old freezer with a weak door seal that must be firmly closed. As I rushed in I could see from the 30 feet away that it was not. It had been left ajar for 24 hours. And the barn’s indoor thermometer read 92 degrees.

I instinctively shut the door tight as if doing so now would make any difference. Then I opened it slowly, with the wincing trepidation usually reserved for one who has, with a sickening crunch, just backed over a child’s favorite toy in the driveway.

“Son of a, son of a, son of a … arrgggghhh!”

It wasn’t just the packages of beefalo –about 25 lbs. — that were thawed and dripping a wretched pink fluid onto the floor. There were also five pounds of gorgeous steelhead and Chinook salmon filets, caught from a boat on Lake Michigan. We’d won the trip in a church raffle and it would not be repeated. There were 20 bags of strawberries, picked on my wife’s family farm, the promise of winter fruit smoothies to come (and now bound for the compost pile). There were venison steaks for which I’d traded six pounds of honey from our hives.

It was such a wasted blessing. In all, several hundred dollars’ worth of food had been reduced to an oozing heap of vacuum-sealed offal. Apart from the money, these were prized provisions of a sort that only our home place can provide. We’d caught the fish, picked the berries and harvested the honey that we’d used for barter. It was our hands and those of our friends that had done this: Brett and Debbie, Brian and John. Their care and handiwork was the food’s provenance.

The loss was beyond infuriating. And someone – I knew exactly who – would have to pay for it.
Picture a hot, dirty, angry father as he stomps to the house. Imagine his self-righteous fury about to be unleashed, channeled into a tongue-lashing about waste, irresponsibility and carelessness that a guilty child would not soon forget.

Then, as the magma of recrimination reached its eruption point, an unlikely thing happened.
Near the patio a memory came to mind of a 10-year-old boy on a Saturday morning in December, some 40 years ago. It was before catechism classes, outside the old Catholic school on South Main Street in Three Rivers. A large puddle on the playground had frozen into an ice rink that made a perfect place for the boy and his friends to go sliding.

Earlier that week, the boy had gotten his first pair of glasses and what a marvel they had been. For the first time in his life he could see, in fine detail, high branches of the tall trees that lined his street.

Such an expensive accoutrement must be protected, thought the boy. So with reasoning that could well be described as recklessly imbecilic, he removed the glasses … and stowed them carefully in his back pocket. It was, inevitably, just minutes before the long-legged, uncoordinated boy fell flat on his rear end. Thus did the new glasses shatter and their lens fragments cut painfully into his skinny buttocks.

My father was a barber and those glasses probably cost him a day’s worth of haircuts. On the way home, I feared his wrath. But it’s telling that my last memory of the event ends here. All I recall is that he didn’t explode. He lashed me neither with his hands nor his tongue. Did he sigh deeply and wonder how such an addle-brained son could have sprung from his loins? Perhaps — but he never let on that he did.

Anyway, by the time I reached the front porch I knew that I couldn’t tell Emily what had happened. I couldn’t lay this temporal loss, so inconsequential in the scheme of things, on the shoulders of a sensitive and usually conscientious 9 year-old girl. It would unjustly grieve her spirit. My father had stayed his hand, and in remembrance of that, I would stay mine.

His example of leniency was a fruit that took four decades to ripen.

Yet those of us who insist on thawing hamburger patties in a microwave oven aren’t inclined to wait long for anything. The head-long immediacy of modern life, the instant availability of all knowledge (even the proper spelling of availability, which the computer’s squiggly red underline now orders me to correct) precludes the long view. We live in a PayPal, overnight-shipping-from-anywhere culture. Instant gratification has been enshrined, even deified by our consumer-driven economy. By design, it’s a world that devalues and even derides patience, self-denial and self-control.

It’s instructive, then, to learn from those whose livelihood requires that they heed the seasonal limits that nature imposes on creation.

When Brett had mentioned “the drought” as the source of his hay shortage, I was at first surprised. The drought? Oh yes, the drought, from last summer. It was long since over for me and everyone else who doesn’t farm.

But when Brett says the “drought” he doesn’t qualify it with “last summer’s drought.” It’s still in the present tense for him. It’s as real as a barn full of bawling beefalo that need hay from somewhere if they’re to survive the winter. Brett will shoulder the drought’s burden until the spring rains, God willing, make his dormant pastures green again.

I told this to Nancy, who worked fall weekends at her family’s orchard and she understood completely. Last March weeks of record high temperatures in the 80s had made the fruit trees blossom far too early. Inevitably, when the weather corrected to seasonal norms, frosts came and destroyed nearly all the apple blossoms. Without blossoms there’s no fruit and the trees won’t bloom twice in a year.

But by fall? When customers came for their squash, pumpkins, garlands of onions, ears of dried Indian corn and, oh yes, bags of apples?

“We’re sorry,” Nance would say, “but there’s hardly any due to the hard frost last spring. We hope they’ll bounce back next year.”

Some customers were puzzled, others a bit put off.

“Well, yes,” they seemed to insinuate, “but we want our apples now.”

As if, through some digital chicanery, we could subvert natural law and produce pixelated Ida Reds on a virtual assembly line. Thankfully, we can’t. But next season, given the trees’ stored-up root energy, there could well be a bumper apple crop. Even should we forget last spring, we can count on nature to keep an accurate set of books.

Within these books – at least if you’re a tree — are pages ordered by a fixed, cellulosic memory of seasons past. It’s a record imprinted with concentric certainty upon their inner-most being. When I was a boy I used to wonder why people couldn’t be more like that. Wouldn’t it be crazy fun to lop off an arm or finger and count the growth rings? (To a curious boy, such thoughts are not morbid.)

While not anatomically true I may have been on to something. People and trees alike do bear within their circumference a lived history of plentiful growth, as well as indelible marks of injury and hardship.

In the haunting poem “Rings,” Joseph Bruchac, an Abenaki Indian poet, conveyed that sentiment about a load of old-growth trees that he saw chained to an Oregon logging truck. Even the smallest log, Bruchac observed, “has more than a hundred/scars around/the wrists of seasons.”

Alexander Pope, writing in 1732, had younger trees in mind (and certainly curious boys) when he composed this timeless proverb: “Just as the twig is bent so the tree’s inclined.”

The trick here is to bend with judicious care. In my experience, when maple saplings are bound too tight in the upright position the guy wires can leave harmful wounds of their own. One must loosen the wires as needed to accommodate new growth. It’s an apt reminder that all discipline should lead to freedom, not enslavement.

Finally, an image closer to home comes from Rachel Peden (1901-1975), an essayist and Indiana farm wife who wrote of rural life with a luminous sense of the ordinary. While raking her front yard, she compares the tree’s annual crop of leaves – meticulously grown from bud to leaf, then recklessly discarded as debris – with her own endless round of meals cooked, beds made, chickens fed and floors swept.

But the colored leaves now lying on the grass are not all. Inside the dark, rough trunk, the tree has added a new layer of live wood around its core … And something remains from a year of farm living, too … a layer of strength that will persist as a permanent record, long after the tedious household chores are raked up and carried out to the midden to disintegrate.

Peden strikes me as one who would understand the remembered mercy of broken things. A traditional farm is a place abundant with life and death, wonder and catastrophe. There must be times when even the strong can’t bear to hear the undiluted truth of it all.

Meanwhile, I’ll save the freezer story for a time when my daughter’s old enough to see humor in it. Until then it’s a door to the past that will have to remain shut – and with more gusto than she managed the first time around.

Gethsemane Blues

This is a guest post by Casey Sharp.

“Please, no explanations inside the Church,” reads the poorly worded sign outside of the Basilica of Agony in Jerusalem. Located at the possible site of the Garden of Gethsemane and Christ’s final agonizing meditation before he submitted himself to die- the Basilica of Agony is not a place for explanations. The Italian speaking Franciscans living in the Church only wanted to urge the noisy tour groups to refrain from disrupting the serenity of a holy place by keeping their lectures on its history outside the sacred space, but the Friars unknowingly made a statement that could not be more appropriate for the Garden of Gethsemane.

According to tradition God wrestled with Himself in this place. God has a thing for wrestling- as with Jacob when he was renamed “Israel,” which means, “He wrestles with God.” According to the Gospels an Infinite Being condemned Himself to die. That makes no sense. There are no explanations. Why would we even include such a theologically contradictory story in our Bibles? When Pope John Paul II visited Auschwitz he called it “the Gethsemane of the modern world.” Like in the Gospel story, innocents had their final meditation before being condemned to an unjust death. Each murder of the genocide left behind a question about the possibility of continuing to believe in God. It is quite a glaring question mark. For many after the Holocaust, it was not possible to believe any more. As Elie Wiesel says of the Holocaust victims in their finals days- they became immortal. You see it in their faces in all the old photographs. Like Christ- they understood something infinite and terrifying in that final agony before they were condemned.

We have asked this same question forever- The Problem of Evil might be the most persistent theological question, and possibly the most important too. CS Lewis and others try to explain it away by looking to free will. They say God must allow us to do terrible things, but try telling that to mothers whose children died in the Holocaust. Tell their mothers that the free choice of Nazis is more important than the lives and continued free will that their children might have enjoyed if they were allowed to live. Sometimes it is unloving and therefore heretical to be too orthodox in your explanations. Then we get into natural evils- hurricanes, diseases, floods, ect.- and the list of what a loving God allows continues to amplify the awful question. 

Though I appreciate CS Lewis’s view, it leaves us wanting, but CS Lewis wrote about evil in that way earlier in his career. Later in his life, after the death of his beloved wife, he adds a new element to the idea of evil in the world saying, “Sometimes it is hard not to say, ‘God forgive God.” Sometimes it is hard to say so much. But if our faith is true, He didn’t. He crucified Him.” All evil in the world exists under the watchful gaze of a loving God. Theists cannot escape this. The Creator knew what He created and permitted in his creation. Even Satan is God’s Satan at the end of the day. Positing an evil force in the universe only delays the question- it does not solve it. This is why the story of Gethsemane is necessary even though it offers no real explanations. Christ dies for OUR sins, but He also dies for the fact that HE allowed us to sin. He totally and completely reconciles Himself to everything He created and allowed, and reconciles Himself in the most agonizing way imaginable because only that would do. Though it makes no sense, we can say we affirm a God who relates to all unjust suffering in the most intimate way possible. 

The nexus of this question is found in Gethsemane, or Auschwitz, or Rwanda, or the site of every school shooting. Turn on the news, and you visit Gethsemane. Inside the Basilica of Agony you will find traditional Byzantine Christian art, “the rock” where Jesus wept (according to traditions), and what you would generally expect in a Christian Holy site- except for one motif in the Church that goes to the very heart of Christian Existentialism. Above the beautiful altar and “the rock” where Jesus wept, you will NOT find a giant imposing crucifix like you see in most Catholic Churches and certainly most Christian holy sites. Instead of a crucifix, you see a mosaic of the scene in Gethsemane, and if you sit there at dawn in silence looking at the scene you might ask God about His goodness, and Jesus is asking the same question with you. You see no imposing figure of Jesus above the altar. Instead, you see a small and lonely figure collapsed on a rock surrounded by a moonless void of a sky. Far off to the right you see the apostles asleep, unwilling and unable to help Jesus carry his question. Way up in the top of the sky is an angel, but he is too far away to offer any consolation to Jesus. The angel is only a vague reminder of hope- all but lost in this scene. The Franciscans of the Basilica are right- you will find no explanations here.

After mass at dawn one morning the Friars allowed me stay in the Basilica for an hour before it opened up for tourists. Jerusalem was still sleeping like the Apostles, and I sat there in silence as the faintest light began to creep in the blue to purple colored stained glass, and I could hear birds outside in the Church’s olive tree garden (they call it the Mount of Olives for a reason). I stared at the lonely Jesus collapsed on his rock, and I walked up to the stone before the altar and put my hand on it- the only pilgrim in the entire holy site, which is a very rare occurrence in Jerusalem. Personally, I could not care less if this stone is not the ACTUAL stone where Jesus wept. The fact that pilgrims have come here and prayed, and wept, and remembered this story for nearly 2,000 years in this exact spot is enough for me. Their prayers and tears have consecrated the place. I stared up at Jesus and the unhelpful but hopeful angel far above Him. No explanations came, but maybe something more important. I realized I could only love a God who is willing to crucify Himself. I can’t worship a detached God who tells Holocaust victims that what is horrific has a purpose in the long run. I might theoretically acknowledge that idea, but I’ll never really be able to believe it. Luckily, I don’t have to theorize away all the suffering in the world. In fact, that would be unChristian of me. Instead I can look to Gethsemane. Without explaining the presence of evil, I sit inside the questions and the contradictions with my God. I am in good company. 

I left the Basilica as the first tourists where beginning to enter- mostly adhering to the poorly (or appropriately) worded sign asking them to keep a respectful silence in the Church. Outside the church faces the Kidron Valley leading up to the Temple Mount, which is the physical symbol of all the hopefulness and eventual joy that is absent in Gethsemane. I do not know how to connect the Basilica of Agony and all its lonesomeness to the Temple Mount and all of its hopefulness, but like the “poorly worded” sign, there is a lesson and a paradox in the fact that a little valley separates the two. I may never be able to bridge that valley with my limited understanding, but as I look up the hill to the Temple as Jesus might have on that agonizing night, I like to think I find something better than an explanation. I find my God. 

Casey Sharp is one of the founders of the Society for Humanitarian Archaeological Research and Exploration, or SHARE, a nonprofit that uses archaeology as a vehicle not only to unearth treasures, but also to promote dialogue among young people from Israel and Palestine. Sharp is currently living in Israel, working on a master’s in archeology from the University of Haifa, near the Lebanon border.

Alphonse and “After-Birth Abortion,” or, The Fetus that Would Not Die.

Guest post by Matthew Lickona

     Almost 10 years ago, I conceived of Alphonse, a sentient, coordinated fetus who survives an attempted abortion.  (The experience leaves him deeply twisted, and on top of that, he’s addicted to heroin.)  It is an admittedly freaky notion, but then, freaks do have their literary uses.  Like the doctor’s creation in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Alphonse is a unnatural creature who forces the reader to think about what is natural, a monster who makes us consider what it means to be human.
     I’ve been trying to get Alphonse’s story out there ever since, with mixed results.  But every time I’m ready to put the little fellow to rest, someone else takes an interest, or something happens to make me think it’s worth it to keep at it.  The most recent bit of motivation:  a spark of interest from a publishing house, and an article in the London Telegraph about a Journal of Medical Ethics paper supporting “after-birth abortion.”  The paper argued that “both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life.'”  Suddenly, the fact that people seek Alphonse’s life even after his “birth” had a new relevance.
     The publishing house, alas, decided not to go ahead with the project.  But the essay in the Journal of Medical Ethics remained.  So I have decided to have another go at raising the funds to pay my artist and letterer to produce a full-color, 140-page graphic novel, one that tells the whole story in one shot.  I hope you will visit Alphonse‘s site, consider donating, and also consider sharing this plea.  Even if no one can afford more than a dollar, I believe there are at least 40,000 souls out there who would agree with me that this is a story worth telling.
     The first chapter (in black-and-white) may be downloaded here.  Thank you for your time and consideration.  Godspeed.