Two weekends ago I visited an Amish greenhouse with my parents. To get there you have to wind through the back roads of Cadiz, Kentucky — past the rock quarry where they do all that blasting, past those yellow fields shining-full of canola — then take a right turn by the big aluminum mail box, and pull your car up the long, crackling gravel driveway that divides a white, two-story farmhouse from three round-top tents full of plants.
An eight-year-old boy uses that same driveway for his family’s horse wagon. The animal is strong-shouldered but compliant to a gentle command. The child wears a straw hat with a wide brim, and his little bare feet have soles that are black and thick from outdoor wear. He keeps his balance by pushing his arches into the singletree, which leaves his toes free to bounce according to the jostle of lane.
A girl about fifteen, with short, dirty fingernails, no makeup, and cheeks flushed from the afternoon heat, works the greenhouse cash register. The front of her navy cotton dress doesn’t have any buttons; it holds itself together by a line of straight sewing pins, and I’m not sure how she manages not to snag her arms on their sharp tips, laboring as hard as she does.
Her mother tends the same tent, and all around her there is the scent of busy hands stirring pots of herbs — lavender and lemon thyme, and also the smell of a human body working. The smell of a body doesn’t bother me, and it never has. It reminds me of old people from my childhood — the sort who wore long cotton sleeves in August and kept their shirt tails tucked in.
The Amish greenhouse is offering a new product this year, little fairy gardens, baskets full of succulents and tiny figurines. I say “fairy garden,” but that’s not quite right. There are no dragons, elves, wizards, or fairies — just tiny replicas of everyday farm life in miniature. One basket has a wee clothes line, and another a wooden bench the size of a paperclip. There is a well (for drawing water, not wishes), and a one-room church building.
When I asked the teenage girl if she had fun deciding what should go into each scene, her eyes got so lit up I could barely look at her. Innocence is all things bright and beautiful in this world where young women her age have learned to be vain, silly, and severe. I wondered if quiet, simple labor could make the feet of a soul thick enough to walk barefoot on sharp earth without getting cut.
An old Shaker song that I have always loved says:
“’Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free, ’tis a gift to come down where we ought to be. And when we find ourselves in the place just right, ‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight. When true simplicity is gained, To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed, To turn, turn will be our delight, Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.”
It’s a fine sentiment, but is it possible to live this way without living down a gravel lane and two miles back in time? How do we choose simplicity in a culture like ours?
“I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil,” says the Apostle Paul, though I can’t check the nightly news without finding stories that make my ribs hurt. There are so many days I want to run away from it all, to go Thoreau (or go Amish?), to live off the earth and read books by the dozens in a quiet room.
But Jesus prayed for His disciples to stay in the game, saying: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” He seems to want us to carry the ring to Mordor against all odds of our own flesh and nature. He presses us to lean in to a church so broken that not even a flurry of holy epistles repaired it entirely.
I don’t like the disappointment of all that because I am an idealist. However, maybe there’s something healthy about the let down. Bonhoeffer writes: “The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both.”
This process isn’t going to be pretty — a startling message to a generation that groans and complains because we have been disappointed by messy believers. We get hurt, and sulk, and want to withdraw, not realizing that it’s actually a good thing to find the ends of ourselves, and the ends of our most trusted friends. It’s a good thing because it pushes us to keep going until we find the very bones of the grace of God.
When I was twenty-two, and wide eyed, and hopeful, I decided to bank everything I had on this journey. I didn’t know how dangerous it was out here, and I didn’t expect to fail as much as I have, or to have others fail me. Pain has tempted me to doubt God and everything else. While trying to be the older brother, I became the renegade, and then while being forgiven for running off, I’ve grown proud and angry about the next youngest son shaking the dust of this dirty little town off his feet and going to see the world.
All that time, the love of God has sustained me. My scars tell the story of my Father’s love.
As a child, I’m thankful for the persistence of the Abba who pursues me, but as a mother, I want something different for my own children. I want to be the sort of parent who produces kids who only make good choices in a safe and easy world.
I want my children’s most difficult moral dilemma to be an episode of Leave it to Beaver. I want their biggest adventure to be a solo run down to some Main Street soda fountain, and for their curiosity to lead to a Google search on “sea turtles” that never leads to a porn site.
I want a Wordsworthian paradise, a Tasha Tudoresque sanctuary, a Shire, and a Green Gables . . . one of those gentle places we all keep expecting to come home to every evening when the tides of darkness roll in.
We’ve never known Rivendell, of course, but somehow we remember it anyway, and until we find our way back to coordinates that make more sense than 2016 does, we are going to feel displaced. We are going to feel the need to be wary and fierce.
This morning I texted my He-Man brother and said, “Hey, what kind of martial arts class should I enroll your niece in to make her college-proof?”
“Krav Maga,” he said.
I laughed, imagining my 16-year-old as a lethal weapon.
We landed on Jujitsu, because learning self defense feels like like one thing and learning how to murder somebody feels like another. This is one of those lines I draw in the polluted air of a fallen world, looking for ways to make my kids strong but pure. I’m not sure I’m doing that right, or if it’s even possible.
And I’m not sure how to help them know deep hunger for the Lord without knowing what it’s like to fill their bellies with husks left for the pigs. If I could choose for them, I would give my children the way of Enoch, that man who walked small and honest beside God until he found one day that he was walking inside of Him.
‘Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be Enoch, and his is the path I’d want my children to take if I held the game controls of their lives, though I’ll admit it’s mostly fear which drives me there, not faith. Parenting messes with your vision, see, and hindsight isn’t 20-20 at fourty-four.
There are people my age who write books on raising kids right, and doing marriages right, and living life right, but I guess I’m just slow, because it’s too early for me to tell where I won and where I lost. I can speculate, of course, but I’m not fully sure if I sent my little ones too much into world, or if I kept them back too far from the edge of the cliff. Maybe I should have found a farm house out in the middle of nowhere and taught them how to drive a horse cart. Maybe I should have sent them off for a summer to work in an orphanage in South America, or let them go to those midnight swimming parties with no chaperones, or bussed them off to the roughest public schools.
I don’t know any of that yet, but I do know that, “Go ye therefore” is risky, and so is “Stay here close to Mama.” And I know sometimes kids who seem tidy at twenty blow all four tires at forty, and sometimes young rebels grow up to become martyrs and saints.
There’s no way for me to carry all that. I’m not strong enough. I’m not smart enough. I can’t get far enough off the earth to see life in miniature. I need God to complete what He began. I planted as best as I knew how, and others have watered, but it’s going to take the Lord to cause the growth.
My husband keeps reminding me that the fatal flaw of most writers is to try and make sense of things before they have come to their natural end. It’s the dark side of the creative nature to jimmy-rig the regular progression God has ordained, to hover over the chaos of our own lives and force light from dark, to pull the moth out of her cocoon three days too early, and KABLAM!, command her to fly.
No matter what we believe about the origin of the physical universe, writers tend to be young earth creationists when it comes to the themes of their own stories, compressing billions of nuances of grace evolving through mystery into our own six days and six paragraphs, rushing through the fiery demise of our giant, reptilian sins, through the embarrassing crude lines of our first cave paintings, through our Renaissances, through our nuclear winters, jumping straight into “They lived happily ever after. The end.”
We want to zoom out and make a fairy garden of what hurts to see large and up close. We don’t like the way plain bodies smell while they are doing their daily, dirty work. We get nervous and look for the punchline before the joke is told out, because patience is too often scratchy like faith.
And yet, what freedom waits for the creative soul who is willing to walk back into the mess of itself, willing to depend upon a God who lives, and moves, and forgives, and upholds. He will give moments of clarity, bits of wisdom and beauty. We will learn to preach the gospel to ourselves and to others in small, honest ways.
But when too much around us is too complex to untangle, when we begin to grope and fear, reliance on the I AM is a dot on the horizon, a lodestar. ‘Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free, ’tis a gift to rely upon the strong arms and wide heart of God. ‘Tis a gift to be a holy fool, come down where we ought to be.
(To be continued…)
NOTE: To prepare for Part 2 of this series, you are welcome to read through Flannery O’Connor’s “The River” and “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie will also be referenced, so if you haven’t seen the version with Katherine Hepburn playing Amanda Wingfield better than anyone will ever play that character, go ye thereforth and find it as fast as your little legs can carry you.