Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Road More Traveled

It is hard not to think of it as my road or, at the very least, our road, my and my family’s road. No one else was living on that five-mile stretch of sticky clay and powdery dirt when we took up residence there and, to this day, long after other residents have acquired an address on the road Daddy named, I still look up at the sound of a passing vehicle, assuming that it is somehow connected to us.

I have walked hundreds of miles between the ditches that the county drags sometimes, crossing tracks made by deer and turtles and snakes and birds of Lord-knows-how-many species. I have pulled a young Adam and even younger Kate in a little red wagon over the undulating bumps created by farm machinery. I have foolishly punished myself by riding a bicycle through sand that provided no traction.

Sandhill sits about halfway between the two paved roads that are the bookends for our dirt one. When I get into the car and head out I don’t have to pay a whole lot of attention. I’ve driven that two-mile stretch in every kind of weather and I know exactly when to slow down, speed up, move over. My hands and feet respond to memory without any specific direction from my brain which is, then, free to wander. I can go through the day’s to-do list or lose myself in an NPR piece. I can notice the morning sunlight coming through the pine trees like a laser and smile at my good fortune.

And in about four minutes, I can find myself at the stop sign, scanning the county road for pick-up trucks going the back way to the poultry plant before pulling out onto the hardtop. Except that several times lately I’ve been jerked from my revery by something totally unexpected.

Our neighbors up on the highway farm a couple of the fields on either side of our dirt road. And they irrigate those fields regularly. At least five or six times this summer I have come smoothly around the bad curve on dry and dusty road only to find my tires suddenly slipping and sliding into muddy clay. I’ve not ended up in a ditch yet, but it’s been close a time or two and less than charitable words have slipped out of my mouth as I’ve maneuvered the car away from a vertical drop of three feet or more.

The last time it happened I felt the tightening of my muscles and the flood of adrenalin and, then, equally as unexpected as the slipping and sliding, came the flash of insight. It is, as I thought, my road. But it is subject to the conditions all around it. And those conditions aren’t always created by rain or wind or other acts of God. Sometimes they are created by other people.

It is a metaphor so often-used as to become predictable and trite, but it is used so often because it so applicable: Life is a road. We can plan the trip, unfold the old gas station map or print out something from Google to plot the course. We can fill the tank, check the oil and the tire pressure, clean the windshield of squashed bugs. We can get a good night’s rest and pack some snacks. With the help of the Weather Channel, we can even accelerate or postpone the journey to take advantage of optimum atmospheric conditions.

What we cannot do is predict the behavior of other people. Drivers, passengers, pedestrians. DOT engineers waving flags, farmers irrigating fields. The homeless woman pushing the grocery cart, the biker in the funny-looking helmet and Spandex shorts. They slow us down, create road hazards, force us onto detours and – Let’s face it. – very seldom know or care that their actions effect our journeys.

So it’s up to me and me alone to make sure I don’t go crashing through a barricade or running over a two-by-four. It’s up to me to pay close enough attention to the changes around me that I don’t end up in the ditch. It’s my road, but there are other people on it. And, if I want to get home, I have to share.

Copyright 2009

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Choice and Chance and What Is Meant To Be

It still surprises me that people who have known me for, let’s say, less than 30 years, all seem to assume that I grew up on the farm, that my ability to identify coffee weed appeared along with my baby teeth, that the first motorized vehicle I drove was a tractor and that I know how to birth baby pigs. The truth is that I was a reluctant transplant to Adabelle, 17 years old and counting down the days before I left for college.

In those eight months and in the holidays over the next seven years, however, I managed to obtain an accelerated education. I learned to chase runaway cows and move pigs from one pen to another. I learned what a soybean was and made a reasonable effort to understand something called soybean futures. I climbed grain bins, rode tractors, experienced something akin to quicksand by playing in a trailer of just-combined corn. I watched the skies and prayed for rain.

None of those things are remarkable anymore. They are a part of the rhythm of my days.

The other day I was in the backyard making a new flower bed, pulling out long white fingers of grass roots from the dry gray dirt, and looked up toward the road at an unusually loud truck rattle. Daddy was pulling the corn auger from the shed up to the grain bin.The auger is tall and skinny and looks like a praying mantis made of sheet metal. One end goes into the grain bin and another into the truck holding shelled corn. In one of those amazing feats of mechanical engineering that I don’t understand, the auger twirls ‘round and ‘round and draws the corn up its narrow neck and into the bin. Sure beats shoveling.

I stopped my digging long enough to watch the slow procession – Daddy with his elbow hanging out the open truck window getting him closer to the rear-view mirror to make sure that the auger did not veer off into the adjacent fields – and remembered hearing for the first time, during that first overwhelming summer, somebody mention an auger.

My thoughts – the thoughts of the bookish literary-minded girl I was – had gone immediately to "Julius Caesar" and the warning of the priests whose auguring ( "Plucking the entrails of an offering forth, They could not find a heart within the beast.") convinced them that Caesar should avoid the Senate on that day. Different word, different spelling, but my only frame of reference.

Thirty-five years later, my own hands plunged deep into dirt, not animal entrails, I found myself laughing at possible confusion between the two words, the idea that an auger could foretell the future, that the waterfall of bright gold kernels splashing into a grain bin could divine tomorrow, that the cloud of corn pollen that rises and falls in a fine layer on grass and sleeves and eyelashes is some sort of pixie dust.

But, of course, it can. Of course, it is. Just as an auger curls its way up into the sky, so Daddy’s choice to bring us all here, to the dirt road and the scrub oaks and the wide open sky, curled its way into our thinking, bore into our definition of what is good and right, twirled itself so tightly into our vision of how things should be that it – after a while – seemed no longer a choice, but destiny.

We like choice. We like to think that we have control. We like moving down the line at the sandwich shop and telling the disinterested young man in the corporate-logo’ed shirt that we’d like lettuce, tomato, no onions, just a few cucumbers and light mayo on one of 50-something possible combinations of meat and bread.

And that is a comfort. But it is also a comfort to sit in the sun on a clear September day and hear the wind chimes sing in the breeze through the chinaberry tree and be glad, be oh so very glad, that some things are just meant to be.

Copyright 2009