Prairie View

Thursday, August 23, 2007

How to Bury a Saint

Yesterday I attended the funeral of Mary Martha, who has been part of our church community for 88 years. Her seven children, 40 of her 46 grandchildren, and all but eight of her 33 great grandchildren gathered to bid their final goodbye, along with hundreds of friends. One of her sons came from Romania for the funeral and a daughter came from El Salvador. A grandson in Thailand and one in Bangladesh were unable to be here.

She lived in the tradition of the Biblical sisters Mary and Martha--like Martha cooking generous and tasty meals for housefuls of company, and like Mary, putting aside her duties regularly to fellowship with her Lord.

One of her sons, when he was a child on his way to the bathroom at four o'clock in the morning, found her sitting at her sewing machine. She wasn't sewing. "Mama, what are you doing?" he asked.

"I'm praying," she answered.

"Why are you praying?"

"Because I have five boys and I don't know how to raise them. I'm asking God to show me." she replied. Now, nearly 50 years later, it's clear that she heard from God and followed up on what she learned. Three of her children work full time in Christian ministries. Another son is a pastor in our church. All her children are faithful Christians.

I remember when I was an adolescent and Mary Martha taught our Sunday School class, she asked us one day if we knew the song "How Beautiful Heaven Must Be." Shy in the presence of our peers, none of us admitted to knowing the song, so she proceeded to sing it for us. I thought of her singing yesterday and reflected on the fact that she had been anticipating for many decades the beauty she is enjoying now.

All these happy reminisces and bright thoughts of heaven collide cruelly however with the earthy realities of needing to dispose properly of a dead body when someone dies. I understand why in many cases a casket stays safely perched over an open grave till the crowd disperses and the heavy equipment can be brought in. But I like the way Mary Martha was buried, and I hope our way of burial never changes.

Mary Martha's grandsons were pallbearers. They helped some of the brothers from the church carefully lower the casket into the hole in the ground beside her mother's grave. Then, as carefully as husky young men are capable of, shovelful by shovelful, the cavity was filled in around the edges of the casket. And then the parade of assistants began to step forward to relieve the pallbearers. One by one they took a shovel and helped to bury Mary Martha's worn-out body. Sons, granddaughters, pastors, nephews, nieces, friends, even a very small great grandson who noticed a few clods that rolled off the mound when the job was nearly finished and picked them up carefully and tossed them onto the pile--no one labored sad and alone, or hurriedly and mechanically to finish the task. Children looked on and learned about caring for each other when death visits. Hymns filled the air as the crowd softly sang along with the appointed singers. Mourners huddled shoulder to shoulder to break the force of the stiff and hot south Kansas wind to keep dust from blowing into the eyes of the family members seated downwind in the shade of a tent. Passing traffic droned and roared by turns. (The new highway turned aside for the cemetery, but the traffic intrudes nonetheless.) The pastor's voice rose above it all. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. . . the spirit has returned to God Who gave it. . . death is swallowed up in victory. . .

"Does death get any better than this?" one person asked during Mary Martha's funeral.

By helping each other around her grave, all of us together helped answer that question with a firm "no."

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Where the Land Has Muscle Tone

A former writing teacher of mine coined this wonderfully poetic description of Kansas. He wrote about it in a poem about Timothy, who lived in Sylvia, Kansas, and committed suicide, and he repeated it in an essay in a college newspaper, ending with the sentence below:

“But for now, I must continue to live in Sterling, Kansas, beautiful Kansas, an epiphany to all things good, where the work is pleasant, the salary low, and the land has muscle tone.”

–Suhail Hanna

One of our ministers, Gary Miller, quoted Dr. Hanna in a recent sermon, and it initiated a cascade of memories about the time in my life when our paths crossed. It happened at Sterling College in Sterling, Kansas.

After church I dug out a volume of his poetry on our shelf. It was titled Albino Cockroaches and dedicated to Howard Cosell, the nation’s number one word jock. On the title page he had autographed the book and included some very nice words about my writing. It was dated 1979.

Dr. Hanna and his wife were both born in Palestine and came to the United States as refugees. He arrived as a child in the late 1940s, with his family. Her family came during a later conflict in the 1960s. They were Arabic. Already in the late 70s, people who looked like Dr. Hanna were subjected to airport searches, apparently even when their countenance reflected benevolence as his did.

When I knew Dr. Hanna he was a committed Christian, and his life reflected peaceful domesticity. Twin sons were born during his years in Sterling, joining two older children in the family. Dr. Hanna moved to Liberty University in Virginia (where the salary was presumably not as low as at Sterling), and is apparently now teaching at Geneva College in Pennsylvania.

I learned something about Dr. Hanna’s past when I chanced upon an article he wrote for Eternity magazine. The title was “An Open Letter to Abbie Hoffman.” In the article he reminisced about their shared past as student activist organizers during the tumultuous years of the late 60s and early 70s. Abbie Hoffman went on to gain widespread notoriety for his social and political protest activities, some of them violent and illegal. At the time of Dr. Hanna’s writing, Hoffman was a fugitive from the law. In the Eternity article, Dr. Hanna wrote about his own conversion to Christianity and shared with Hoffman that he had found an agent of change far more powerful and effective than any they had known or dreamed of together.

In our fiction-writing class, Dr. Hanna read aloud our submissions and critiqued them as he went. This sounds scarier to me now than I remember it being at the time. I suspect that he was kind enough at heart to make the experience palatable for everyone.

A well-toned muscle is slightly tense even when it is at rest–potential energy waiting for the signal to become kinetic. That image perfectly describes the impression I have of Dr. Hanna’s life–at rest in Sterling, Kansas, but eager to become active in the larger arena of life, and displaying ever-so-fine mind and muscle tone when he undertook a writing task.

I’m glad I knew him, and I'm happy to live in a place where the land has muscle tone.

Double-Door Onion

In the deep shade west of our house I spread out this year's onion crop to dry and then put them into a tub to be carried to the basement. Because of an oversight (not mine, in this case), one tub of ready-to-store onions was left outside when we had more than one-half inch of overnight rain. I discovered the sad onions about five days later when the onions in the bottom had already begun to go bad. I dumped the whole mess into a big container with a perforated bottom and left them outside to drain and dry. As I encountered spoiled onions I set them aside on the ground beside the container (too lazy to carry them individually to the compost). It was one of these spoiled onions that made me wonder if I was losing my mind.

I went out to get a good onion to use in cooking and witnessed a large rotten onion on the ground periodically throwing open and then closing double doors in its side. Now the doors were folding out; now they were shut tight with only the crack between them showing. What on earth? Was this an onion-version variation on the tricks puff ball mushrooms are capable of--splitting open to release spores, in their case? I kept my eyes glued to the spot and walked toward the "live" onion. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light in the dense shade I identified a Question Mark butterfly on the side of the double-doored onion, periodically opening its wings in a brilliant deep orange and brown display of color, and then changing to a thin vertical line of brown when its wings were folded.

In my learn-all-I-can-about-butterflies phase I discovered that some butterflies have fairly disgusting feeding habits. Certain kinds are just as happy to feed on rotting fruit and animal droppings as flower nectar. I've seen Admirals in feeding orgies on the piles of horse manure in my friend's pasture. I'm told that they are extracting minerals from these unsavory sources. I don't object, but I may look askance at the next butterfly that comes and sits softly on my shoulder. No telling where this butterfly last landed.

Or maybe I'll settle for determinedly ignoring some of the information inside my head that tries to force itself to the fore, and I'll focus hard on the beauty of the "flying flowers" that add so much grace and beauty to summer days.

Who knew that the small disaster of the onions-left-in-the-rain would yield a treasure such as a techni-colored, animated double-doored-onion phenomenon? I'm glad the Question Mark butterfly "knew" without asking.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Seeing Things

This morning I went out to do some watering around 7:00 A. M. in an effort to beat the intense heat predicted for today. Because the watering I was doing involved changing the hose about every five or ten minutes from one watering trench to another, I stayed to watch the water flow rather than try too hard to be productive meanwhile. (In my opinion, watching water flow is on par with gazing into a fire or watching the clouds as a therapeutic pastime.) While I was there I observed several things that put a smile on my face and started my work day on a positive note.

We have two very tame kittens left from a Spring litter of four. Both of the kittens accompanied me companionably when I went to the flower garden, and they occasionally brushed up against my legs, and intermittently inspected curiosities that presented themselves. I kept out a sharp eye to head off any interest they showed in uprooting the flowers or rolling over on them as they lolled about. The white kitty was off to my left when I heard a sudden grunt (I didn’t know kittens could grunt.) from that direction and saw a streak of white beelining toward the porch. The white kitten fled to its hiding place under the steps before stopping. I laughed aloud as I realized what must have happened. Its tall preening tail must have made contact with the lowest strand of the electric fence around the flower garden. Sorry kitty.

Later the orange tiger kitty was rolling around on the ground in front of me, probably trying to scratch its back. Without taking notice, he/she rolled right into the watering trench, now with flowing water in that spot. An astonished kitten righted itself very hurriedly and then proceeded as if nothing had happened. On its back, the fur was thoroughly plastered with mud and water, and I wondered idly whether that spot was in reach of the cat’s own grooming tongue. I considered and then dismissed the possibility of squirting the kitty was water from the end of the garden hose after I remembered that a spray of water is one of the recommended pet cat training tools used to warn them away from bad behavior. This situation didn’t quite fill the bill so I refrained.

Shortly thereafter my Katahdin ram alongside the garden ambled into the kennel that opens into their grazing area. He marched over to a clear spot along the chainlink fence panal and leaned against it. Then he rubbed back and forth a number of times. I saw his problem and sympathized. His entire body is covered with sleek goat-like brown and white hair, except along his back. There, all you can see is a layer of wool about three inches thick. I’m sure he would have dislodged that insulating layer of wool long before now if he had been able to reach that spot. His self-shearing skills haven’t been perfected, and I knew instinctively again that my efforts to help him would probably not be welcome. If he were as tame as the ladies in the flock are, I could walk up and simply lift off the offending wool, but I can imagine him getting a panicky look in his eyes and dashing past me if I tried to approach him now.

One of the watering trenches in the garden has a 10-foot long crack running along its length. I don’t know why the ground cracks here and not elsewhere, but the crack makes the watering project more interesting. The water disappears into the end of the crack as it reaches it, and then flows along underground for some distance before there’s enough water to come to the surface and begin again to fill the trench. This morning, I watched thirteen small toads in turn wriggle out of that crack as the water reached their hideaways along its length. Each toad was worth at least one smile.

One day when Grant was much younger I asked him to join me in the garden on a morning when he would have preferred to stay indoors and do something on the computer. “Why?” he demanded in an effort to delay the inevitable.

“Because when you’re out and about, you see things you’d miss if you stayed in front of the computer,” I answered. Grousing and grumbling, he joined me, and as if orchestrated for our benefit, we witnessed an incredibly rewarding natural event.

When we checked a killdeer nest that we’d been watching and protecting in the garden, we found one cracked egg shell and three eggs that had chips and cracks. They were rocking back and forth slightly, but because of their pointed small end stayed in the slight depression that formed the nest. A short distance away a tiny little feather ball on stilts cheeped and bobbed around with its frantic parent dashing in periodically to lure us and the baby away from the nest. While we watched, three more killdeer chicks pushed their way out of the shell, and within minutes, they too were running around in the garden. The mother finally corralled all of them over to the headed-out triticale growing outside the garden fence where they had some cover. The rest of the morning we heard their occasional chirping nearby and cheered silently for their survival.

I couldn’t resist this made-for-sermonizing opportunity. “Just think, Grant, you would have missed all this if you had stayed indoors by the computer.”

This morning, I would have missed a host of animal antics if I had stayed indoors.

Never underestimate the power of the natural world to amaze and entertain. But if you want to see things, you have to get out and about.