On the farm, one is required not only to take in the silence that lurks joyful along the rolling prairie but to make use of it. The tractor will spit and sputter. The meadowlark will trill in the sunlight. The wind will push along its way. But there are the moments, sitting still with the farm truck shut off when it will slip over a man and widen him out.
Archive for the ‘Kansas’ Category
When he spoke, it sounded to the young boy like he was gargling gravel and grit. The quality fascinated him as he listened to his grandfather intone the prandial prayers. As the runny eggs and the bacon were being finished and the last cup of coffee was slurped, he’d been given instructions as to the chores to be done before heading out to set endposts in concrete. They’d later loop barbed wire diagonally in an X around the two thick stumps. He’d be given the task of twisting the barbed wire to increase the tension. The pliers he would use would slip, slicing off his fingernail. Between now and then there would be silence. He would be expected to remember and to know all that he had to do. This was the way of it. Questions might be answered once, but after that greeted with exasperation. Then silence punctuated with a grunt and the shaking of the head. He’d have to figure it out himself.
It was a hard way for a young boy to prove himself.
There are wounds and there are wounds. Some you can live with. Others forever change your life. Some heal. Others never do. Some have a didactic benefit. A boy who thinks he can parachute off the roof of his house by holding the corners of a bedsheet over his head can thank the teaching of a throbbing ankle for the lesson as to why this is not a good idea. Others, however, seem to have no discernible benefit at all. There is pain. Then there is living in pain. The lonely parents standing over the empty bassinet surely have a sense that however many children follow after, that empty space will not be filled.
In the early winter mornings, as the skies are lightening, the dark reluctantly letting go its hold, a hidden sun spreading a dull grey over the landscape, a man will awake to silence. He will heave himself out of bed, dress, put on his coat, hat and gloves, and don his boots and walk outside. He has not taken his coffee or his breakfast. He may squint a little out of habit, and tilt his chin just so out of reflex against the cold. Then the crunch of his boots in the snow will sound like gunshots over the blanketed prairie.
He will greet the silence with his own wordlessness. Whatever it is that may lie in his heart, having been ruminated on while he slept, he will slam the door on it and lock it within. There is work to do. No time for words. And what would he say? Would he toss forth all the foolishness lying in his chest? Words are costly. He would not waste them so.
There is another silence. In the pressing heat of the summer noonday on the prairie, the wind dead and still, a man will find the words stifled in his mouth as sweat drips down his neck and runs the length of his spine. Standing by the pickup, the water jug no longer cool, the silence is heavy with something like a dread. He will not know if he has the strength left to finish the day, for there are eight or nine more hours yet to go, and the heat of the afternoon has not yet reached its desiccating fulness. He grabs the bill of his hat, pulls it from his head and rubs the wet fabric of his shirt across his forehead, grimacing. He is silent now not from the sense of the myriad foolishness of his words, but rather from the desolate emptiness from which they come. There is nothing in him to say.
He will finish his long day and head indoors for dinner. He will doff his boots, wash his hands and face, and pull his chair up to the table. His iced coffee will sit to his right, his place will have been set. Barely a word will have been spoken. He will say grace in the Jacobean manner, because that is the rhythm and the cadence he knows. The mistress of the farm will fill his ears with talk of the day. She has stored this up just for his hearing. He will punctuate her narratives with the nod of a head, a rumbling grunt, a monosyllabic “yep.” He will have said nothing, but somehow she will have been satisfied.
Then comes the final silence of the day as the man lies next his wife in the marital bed. The damp heat barely alleviated by the anemic wind that just rustles the lace curtains. Theirs has already been the kiss bidding farewell till the morning, neither knowing if they will wake again. On his heart the man has much to say. The silence has filled him this day. But now he is weary and does not know how to begin.
So he reaches out a hand underneath the covers and grabs the slender hand of his mate. He gives a squeeze. And soon he is asleep, his heart again ruminating in the silence.
There is a single truth that one learns on the Kansas farm: catastrophe and destruction are never further away than the next sunrise. With all the planning and ingenuity, with all the government stipends, with all the backing of insurance, the fact remains a Kansas farmer is the world’s most desperate gambler or it’s most quintessential saint.
Only a man can show a boy how to be a man. No woman can do it. This is a hard but necessary truth, and inescapable. There are as many ways to demonstrate this as there are men. It is not a matter of one’s occupation or social status, though these, to be sure, shape and culture this manhood. It is, rather, that such a thing comes from the man himself. And the hard thing of it is that every man can only show a manhood imperfect and flawed. This is the way of it, and it is best to front it as best one can.
Sometimes a man is brought to suffer a death on the Kansas plain, while the wind wraps around him and he must yank his hat down more firmly over his brow. Whether or not he is a reflective man, he will be forced to contemplate one or another matter as he stands next the turned-over earth, where the headstone will not be set for some days. He may suffer this death alone, a single silhouette against the setting sun, arms resting atop his shovel, a boot heel hooked over the blade.
He will come to this end and face the end of all that came before, because no matter what of his former manner of living will continue into the coming days, everything will be different, nothing will be the same, and his life will have an inescapable and essential difference from everything coming up the path to this grave. The acrid grit of mortality will flavor all his tastes, the weight of sorrow will labor every breath, the dew of his tears will wet everything on which his eyes rest.
Though he will well know that he cannot be faulted for this mortality, that he is as infected with the stuff as is the object of his downcast gaze, yet he will wrestle off his back a guilt he cannot avoid and is not his to bear. All the infinity of alternate futures and revised pasts will confront him. All the questions which call lonely through the silence seeking answers will weave in and out of his hearing. That way lies a certain madness and an impotent anger. All that could have been done, but wasn’t. All that could have been done differently, or sooner, or . . . . And its siren call will constantly beckon.
In mercy, the dirt at his feet will painfully remind him that here, this fetid plot, here is what he must confront. The death of all he has known. Nor will it rise again. Or, it will not rise in time to save him, if it rise at all. There is a mystery here of freedom and destiny that he cannot fathom.
But if he listen carefully, between the strains of the siren song and the notes of his darkened heart, he will be given to hear the voices which call him from that gravesite, to the labor and responsibilities he has been given, him and no other. If he is a man, he will shoulder this load and accept his yoke. His vision will be cleansed of the mortal dust by his tears and the freshening wind. His feet will find again ground that is firm. He will not be able to give a reckoning of all the yield of the death from which he’s come. He may yet pay a bitter and agonizing harvest. But he will find in his new destiny a quiet, and, if the divine mercy grant, a particular joy only he can know and understand.
In that there may after all be a sort of resurrection.
Her name was Hope, and he loved her because she called him Tiger, and for the way the glasses settled just so as she read the book. She’d read The Mouse and the Motorcycle, complete with motorcycle sounds, and he could close his eyes and see that mouse, the ping-pong ball helmet and the motorcycle racing across the room. How could a boy not have a certain regard for his young teacher when she let him answer roll call like the Fonz; or, on his learning that his desk had been moved into a group of three girls, let him hide under his desk half the morning, finally coaxing him out with a “C’mere, Tiger”? And when she led the second grade class out to recess by marching, well a boy could take on the world after that.
They’d chart the weather, and there was something about lions and lambs. They watched a Monarch butterfly emerge from a chrysalis. The whole class went out to set it free on a windy spring day.
This was Kansas, so there were regular tornado drills, and all the children would be taken to the tunnel underneath the school hallway floor where they’d sit for a few minutes, the dim lights lighting up the nuclear danger signs. He never minded the drills, because it smelled like being in a cave, and he could imagine the terrors and adventures that lay out of sight along the unseen dark end of the tunnel.
There was also the terror of the German Shepherd he faced everyday as he headed home from school. He could have gone around the back way to his family’s mobile home, but it was longer and there was a certain shame in not fronting this test. So he would walk by as slow as he dared, counting out the steps. That dog barked something fierce, and though there was always the fear that he would slip his leash and charge him, it never happened. Well, except for the one time almost all his worst fears were realized. That dog did slip his leash and did charge at him. He froze, but didn’t yell or shout. And that was it. After a moment, the dog loped back to his porch, and the young boy breathed out and walked on. He did allow himself to walk on the opposite side of the road after that. But still every day he walked by as slow as he dared, and let that dog bark. It’s what a boy does if Hope calls him Tiger.
[Other Kansas reflections are here.]
By the time a Kansas farmer becomes sag-bellied and stooped, he has learned a thing or two worth telling. Most of the world, of course, passes this by, mostly from indifference, sometimes from derision. But the life of a Kansas farmer is a surprising thing. It is a life of unlooked-for and unrecognized mysticism; a creational monasticism, with its own hours and liturgies.
For the Kansas farmer starts his every day rising in the dark to meet the divine providence. There is a virile resignation here that is a wonder to the uninitiated, a dynamic fatalism that leaves a signature, a mark of a man’s sweat and blood. The farmer accepts the day and what it brings, but he does not leave it unformed. His is a backbone of stubborn grit. Grace may lack a little in the language he uses, calling down divine curses on a stuck irrigation valve. If he is unschooled, still his is a calculus of the motion of a tractor through the field, and the interval of the setting sun; his a trigonometry of the seasons and the arc of harvest.
Most Kansas farmers are church folk, though they wear their faith easy and with little affectation. A farmer might appear nervous and apologetic ‘round the young preacher boy from college, but only due to the perceptions of book learning and articulation. Otherwise, a farmer has in him the questioning ability of Job, and the capacity to keep that soft-handed Bible college boy tied up in theological knots. A farmer might wear his suit jacket to the Sunday meeting, but he’s like as not to put it on over a pair of overalls, bringing a bit of God’s earth in to the pew with him on his ragged boots. He will petition God for the things he cannot do: to bring the rain, to stop the flood, to grow the wheat, to make the calves healthy. He will thank God for his food, his shelter, his family. His prayers will echo the Jacobian turn of phrase, for this is his Bible, and one would never refer to God with the familiar “you.” He is a self-reliant man who intuits if he does not know he must anchor his self-reliance in something bigger than himself.
The world of the Kansas farmer is not gentle, nor is it kind. The ancestral curse is his daily reality. He will bury his children, his parents, his brother. The winter will be hard and lean. He lives every day at the point of epic failure. Every day, he will face the question of himself: is he man enough for the trial? A man might lose his arm in a cutter. And if he survives, he will face a different sort of test. This is a mortal world. Memento mori.
This is the way of it. This is what a Kansas farmer knows. His life and choices shape him. He doubtless gives little time to intellectualizing all this. His philosophy and theology have no technical vocabularies and books. Rather his doctrine is thread on a different loom.
In the diner over coffee, at the church potluck, at the mechanic’s shop, a Kansas farmer will learn to weave a narrative. The tales are simple, often exaggerated, and usually self-deprecating. They are told and retold often enough, the women folk shaking their heads. These are no literary works of art, to be sure, but the building up of an understanding from the stones and timbers of daily life. When one can learn to speak in metaphors and the third person he may find there a form of wisdom.
[Other Kansas reflections are here.]
There are hills elsewhere, but there is something about the soft waning of the pastel light over the Flint Hills of Kansas that is like nowhere else. There are prairies elsewhere, but there is something about the wide, wide open expanses of western Kansas that invites a man to breathe and expand like nowhere else. Other places have their loves, too, yet one may be forgiven a particular attention to the sort of loves one may find in Kansas.
But let us set down some truths lest a certain enthusiasm carry us into fantasy. Kansas was built amidst the blood and violence sewn up with man’s desire to own another man. Cold-blooded murder is not unknown in Kansas, nor, too, other unholy desires. A husband may exercise his infidelity, a wife her shrewishness, as well in Kansas as anywhere else. Kansas is not the land of fairy tales. And if it may rise to the mythic it does so through a host of quotidian mercies woven together from a common life.