The Bruderhof

Thanks to friends of friends at Koinonia Farm, while hiking through New York we had a chance to take a day of rest in a Bruderhof community located very close to the trail. (Check out some basics on their Christian communal groups on Wikipedia if you aren’t familiar; I wasn’t very). I cannot express the sincerity and volume of their hospitality. I think they’re trying to show how god’s love must feel, to make us wonder that it comes despite our having done nothing to deserve it.  Perhaps they are following the “love your neighbor as yourself” dictum… except sometimes I am not that good at loving myself. In any case, we were met at the road and brought to their lovely, immaculate home.

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(They are so clean and orderly that the next day when I hung my camp towel on top of one of my trekking poles and stuck the pole in the ground outside the building, I returned in an hour to notice that a drying rack had been set underneath the towel, with the pole relaxing on the top rack.)

They were gathered under some big trees in a circle. We had arrived in the midst of an end-of-year celebration for their schoolchildren. The children were honored and asked to shake hands with elder members of the community. (There is also more handshaking there than anyplace else I’ve been. They would put politicians to shame.) Then the young men wheeled forth coolers full of ice cream with strawberries ladled on top, and handed them out to everyone. Everyone sang songs, people asked us questions and welcomed us, and then we went to bed.

Our host’s sister and her niece, about twelve years old, hiked with us the next day. They are excellent hikers. They put on tennis shoes along with their regular attire of long dresses, plain work shirts, and wide-brimmed cloth hats over their braids, then gracefully and swiftly moved down the path, jumping logs, scrambling up boulders. It was a treat to have local experts along on the hike: Jodie pointed out wintergreen leaves and a raven’s nest, and Carrie and I mused on flowers we were trying to identify.

It was so interesting to observe at least the surface of another community, another culture. Their subtle accents, perhaps due to German origins and/or their exile time in Paraguay, evident when they say foam, light, or settlers. Their children nimbly climbing trees. Their singing together at every gathering–and there are many gatherings. (And it was with disbelief I watched as everyone did so… the guys are not secretly wishing they could go home and watch Monday Night Football? They really want to sit with their families and sing in three-part harmony simple and cheerful songs about hiking, rambling, being on the sea, loving each other, and the moon? It seems so.) And their desire to impart to their younger generations the urgency and drive with which they were founded in Germany in the 1920s, a unity born both of newness and of persecution.

They sent us off the next morning with a dozen freshly baked oatmeal-raisin cookies, a loaf of braided bread baked golden brown with sesame seeds on top, and a feeling of immersion in kindness. We are very grateful. These are the unexpected Trail experiences we will never forget.

 

A hiker’s gratitude list

Health.

Trail maintenance volunteers.

When crossing over a stretch of rocks, to hear, but not see, water flowing beneath… earth’s hidden filtration system, and the promise of a spring nearby.

Apples. We each carry one up the hill in our side pockets each time we leave town, to eat that night. Durable, water heavy, crisp and fresh, they are the most satisfying treat.

Trail consisting of soft pine needles over rich, springy loam.

Being able to hike in the rain without minding it. Developing the ability to look at a crappy forecast and not despair.

People like Kemp. He is a trucker between jobs who was hanging around killing time in a park from which we had hoped to get to town. We got to talking and he ended up driving to town with us and our packs, ferrying us to the laundromat (where he worked a sudoku), the grocery, the shaved ice place, and finally to a restaurant of his suggestion, where we all ate an early dinner. He didn’t do it with the air of one who is intentionally Being Nice, but he wouldn’t accept gas money or a free dinner or ice. He said that would make him feel guilty, of all things. He just said he didn’t have anyplace else to be. The last we saw him, we were back at the park, and he was running like a little kid toward the overlook to the train tracks, because he heard one coming and wanted to watch it go by. (Truckers understand the lure of the linear, like hikers and trainspotters. Many of them know where the trail crosses highways and tap their horns amiably when they see hikers passing over.) We will send him a postcard from Maine when we reach the end of this line.

A clean, fluffy towel and a shower, any shower, even a solar shower, the barrels of which theoretically hold the sun’s warmth in their water, and which drizzle the bather with a cold but clean stream.

A hiking partner who carries half the gear and sleeps next to you every night, making it home. When you both wake, you carry out an oft-repeated dance of packing up your home and moving together through lands yet unknown, but with the faith that they too will be home, just as soon as the stakes go in and the bedrolls unfold.

Ends

Four years ago we caravanned to a town we didn’t know, and it became home. Now, we leave Missoula in four days. This morning I sat on the floor and ate breakfast. Our furniture, which was lugged in from thrift stores and Craigslist and even alleys, has gone back out the door, to friends and strangers. Watching the apartment empty is like traveling back in time, to when we arrived, beginning a sentence to which we didn’t know the end. I couldn’t have imagined it would be so good.

My jaw aches, probably from grinding it at night, subconsciously clenching at change. Excitement for the upcoming trail is strong, but it is temporarily covered with a long to-do list and many goodbyes to kind people. I’ve already had a few teary ones, and more where the tears will come later, probably during the long, flat length of Nebraska, where it is safer to let them go.

This is voluntary, of course. All things end, so why not practice? A departure is a little death. One day I would like to practice being the one to stay, but either way, at parting, if there is sadness, there was love. And as far as I can figure, that is all that makes living human in a mad world worthwhile.

On the way home from work, the radio played a song I’d never heard before: “Good Times,” by Matt Costas. Here’s the chorus:

Finally those good times are comin
Good times are comin
Good times are comin
…to an end.

But he doesn’t sound sad. Those good times are coming to an end.

Different good times lie ahead.

Good night!

Free skate

My father is slightly nervous, slightly timid, and just plain slight. He is caution, planning, deliberation, care, hesitance. This is how he has been as long as I can remember. This is Dad.

But today, our small family went to the ice rink in the old train depot downtown. Pop music piped into the arena and a disco ball spun over dozens of shouting, fumbling, laughing skaters of all ages. My mother, brother and I laced up the endless hooks on our skates, pulling the laces tight, losing the grip, re-pulling. We looked up and Dad was gone. We hadn’t even put our street shoes in a locker with the stack of three quarters yet. His shoes lay next to ours, unsecured.

And he was already on the ice. His hands joined easily behind him, his posture was as casual as if he were merely strolling, but he skimmed the length of the rink in seconds flat. He came to the curve and lapped one foot over the other, rounded efficiently and whizzed back between the other skaters with the grace of a dancer. He spun and skated backwards, then forward again, weaving his course without thought or effort. There was no flash to his skate: he wore his usual coat, glasses and thin jeans, and he cut no tricks. But there on the scratched rink, slant January sunshine slicing across the ice, my father cast a long and elegant shadow, more at ease on frozen water than on land, concrete or carpet. 

I stumbled onto the ice and began my flailing lap, energetic and fearless, but inept. He laughed as I tried to sneak up from behind, he whirled and stopped in a sharp hockey move. “How do you skate backwards? Show me how you do that!” I begged. No taller than me, he pushed forward as I, holding his hands, tried to slide back. He couldn’t explain how he did it, and I couldn’t do it, so we quit the lesson and just looped and looped, and I followed him and filled my eyes with his flight. To see him free that way, free as a boy skating on a frozen river in Belvedere, Illinois, free as a youth rushing into a hockey fray, free as a spirit, filled me with gladness and love for my father.

24 roses

This morning I went to the flower shop and got 24 medium stemmed roses. I put them in a bucket in the passenger seat of the pickup and drove to County Health. I went in the door and told the receptionist that I had a delivery. “Who for?” “A rose for everyone in this place.” She didn’t smile; there was an invisible wall between us. Surely she is used to both shenanigans and sappy charity. She allowed that she would receive one, and chose white, then directed me upstairs with the names of two ladies to request.

Upstairs the staff was delighted, choosing roses that matched their sweaters, and they were stirred at the mystery: “Who sent these?” I am a poor liar, so I said sometimes that I didn’t know, or that I was only the delivery person, or that I could not say. Some of the people in the waiting room waited for the catch. I had to mention that they were free, and try not to sound like a naive, condescending bitch. “Also, they have little plastic water vials so they won’t wilt while you wait.” Sometimes the ice broke when I asked not whether a person would like a rose, but: “Which color would you like?” Fortunately I had four white, eight red, six pink, and six yellow with orange tinge, so the selection was attractive.

I wonder about the people who did not want a rose. It seemed they did not want to stoop to something. What was the obstacle? Being a receiver? Pleasure? Unbusinesslike conduct? Interaction with a stranger? “I have errands to run all day,” said a woman who would not look up from her phone, and continued to list her obligations, her voice tapering off in a thread of stress. When I went back downstairs, the receptionist with the white rose had perked up a bit, and the tech next to her stretched her arms in the air and said, “Right here! I’ll take one!” A patient on her way out had just given flowers to anther person, and felt it was karma. I suspect the wizened guy in suspenders and a wiry beard was going to re-gift his scarlet rose to a ladyfriend, and the old guy in the ballcap and dirty shirt freely admitted that he intended to butter up the doc. “That’s right, you want to be on her good side,” I said, laughing.

The bucket was almost empty and the clinic was sated. The last two roses took a long time to give away, walking down the sunny streets and unsuccessfully offering them to a young woman, a cop, a couple of cyclists, and a paper supply salesman. Finally a nursing home clerk and her primary care specialist, as she referred to him, claimed them. I tossed the empty bucket in the truck bed and drove back to the apartment.

Empty-handed, I felt less of a Hallmark do-gooder glow than an infection of curiosity, more questions than conclusions. What were these people’s lives? What were their ailments? To whom would they go home, if they were lucky enough to have a home? How long would the last rose last? Regarding the choice: why each yes, why each no? Was anyone left out, and would someone share? Would anyone do the ol’ pay-it-forward? Can the joy of a surprise flower be measured? Can it grow on a person even if begrudgingly accepted? Possibilities hover in the air around each gift of thorns, single fern fronds, quarter ounces of life-preserving water, and faint smell buried in the whorls of a rose. I may never know, but two dozen points of color are moving about this city, accompanying two dozen anonymous people, and I like to think that the roses will hear and that they will know.

To the poet

I can see that you’re sitting there, pretending to read the paper, fantasizing about me. About my piercings and tattoos and how you could please me by buying me patchouli and fresh local irises and shiitakes. You would rent a loft and have me move in and life would be sunlit and candlelit by turns. I’d be an easy catch, late thirties and still pouring coffee and toasting bagels. But maybe you don’t imagine that I have two children? One with a learning disorder? A live-in sister? Psoriasis? You know as well as I do that even if I hadn’t, we wouldn’t spend the rest of our lives making love on the futon. Anyway, you’re not my only gazer: there’s the Swedish human rights attorney, and the bass player with the houseboat, both at least ten years younger, I might mention. Does someone pay you to write dreams in your notebook, to stare through the steam of your half-caf? What’s behind your glut of down time? My life’s bound up, all hours, with ties most folks can’t see. And all my dreams are free.

Total dance

The wheelchair bounced and shimmied, and her hair shook free of its ponytail. Her hands fluttered at the ends of her arms like white birds straining at the end of ropes, about to break away and fly off. The bearded brown man bent his knees, making himself even shorter, though he was already barely taller than she, though she was seated. His features were asymmetrical, his beard wild and uneven. He did not smile, but his eyes held hers, animated with intensity. She whooped and, encouraged, he shook his hips. They leaned together, sweating, immersed. The room was a sauna of dancers trying to look good, trying to pass time, trying to blend in, trying for cool. Only she and he did not try, only danced, total joy danced.

We’re gonna die

We both know this. As for me, you tell me that maybe I’ll fall into an unmarked hot spring and boil. Maybe I’ll buy a car without side airbags and be crushed. Maybe Yellowstone will blow and I’ll have picked an apartment on the wrong side of the Mississippi. Maybe I’ll lick cookie dough with salmonella. Maybe I’ll puncture my throat gesturing with a sharpened candy cane. Maybe I’ll walk to the bus stop on a dark night instead of driving, and be dragged off to an unspeakable end. Yes, one of these fates which you illustrate for me out of love, out of care, or one of a thousand other fates all ending the same place, will be mine. And despite vitamins, safety features, savings, insurance, prudence, mistrust, fear, despite health food, moderation, and vaccinations–one day you’ll die too. Cautious one, beloved friend, choose your path through the wondrous wreckage of this world. Step with all the care you please. The way may be just as you like, or otherwise. And as we fall, one by one, or perhaps hand in hand, as we lose gravity, weight and our entire collection of atoms, may we be thankful for our days. May we die in pain but without bitterness. May we think not “If only I hadn’t–” but “Oh! this was worth it!”

Ayiti

I miss my arm, my right arm. I cannot see it. Sometimes this is because my eyes are closed. Sometimes this is because there is no light. But even when my eyes are open and the light shines in, I do not know if it is there. Anyhow, my arm is of no importance now, though I have much time to think about it. I am not sure why time goes so slowly or what I am supposed to learn here lying under the weight of my house, waiting. Who knew such a small house could be so heavy? Perhaps it is the five hundred years of history pressing down as well. I try not to think or ask anything; these hurt. Instead I imagine I am eating fruit that falls from the sky without weight. The juice drips down my chin. I’ll swallow this fruit until I drown in purple juice, not thinking, not asking.

I miss my other half. The boy who was stomping one leg, then the other, pretending to be a giant, though he only ever rose to my hip. He is nearby but he makes no sound. He did sing, all night, but then light came back through the gaps and told us that the night was over, and I hear his song no more. So. We both make no noise now. Perhaps his feet awoke the giant quake. Perhaps his song was too much joy for this land. Perhaps he will be a bird next time. A bird who drops fruit to the thirsty. Or perhaps he will be a left side, and I will be a right. We will join at the heart.

Consuelo

She’s growing thin and wobbly. Can’t eat like she used to. She seems to have lost her sense of smell, and her eyes are tired, half-closed. We buried her sister on the mountain last summer; by now the snow is falling over the body. Where will we bury her? It is too cold to dig the earth now. Sometimes I hear her struggle, from the next room, where I sit and read library books and pretend not to think of her. I wish she would die and get it over with, and also I wish for her to linger, for us to enjoy what is left of her company for a few days more. Thus, I give her peanut butter, but not vitamins—love, but not a fight.