Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Home On The Plain?

"You're always saying that." It was The Bagpiper's younger son, invoking his youthful right to hold his elders accountable for words and actions, and I had to admit he nailed it.

"You're always saying the place ALMOST feels ready, ALMOST could be called a real home." He was impatient with me, which was fair enough. I'm already pretty impatient with myself. Our construction project has played out like most budget-restricted ventures, slowly, with much frustration along the way. When WILL we be ready to say, for certain, that this site of our intellectual and physical labours is more than just another worksite? When WILL we step into this space, breathe deeply, relax into the peace of it, and say to ourselves and each other, "We're home"?

The Bagpiper and I have been taking turns, the past few weeks, reading aloud from a small book called "The Plain Reader: Essays on Making a Simple Life." (Ed. Scott Savage, ISBN 0-345-41434-9). It is a collection of speeches and essays from Amish and Quaker perspectives. The work grew out of The Center for Plain Living and their 1996 event, "The Second Luddite Congress." (I may draw some ire for mentioning this event on the internet, which they do not believe to be an appropriate forum for discussion of such ideas, but I'll take the risk because I think the ideas matter.)

The book features many of the Thinkers of Big Thoughts that led us to this farm, the spiritual guides and on-location reporters of The Settled, Rooted, Intentional Life: Wendell Berry, Jerry Mander, and Gene Logsdon are featured alongside essays on draft horses and washing clothes by hand. I don't agree with all their reasons and perspectives, but I do agree with the premise offered by Bill McKibben in the book's foreword:

"This book is...a manual for subverting your own life. And after that, perhaps, the lives of those around you. In an odd sense, when every taboo has fallen, then the only way to be subversive is to have more fun than other people--to fill your heart and your home with more joy and warmth and pleasure than the frantic, slightly pathetic, ersatz happiness offered by Disney and the mall and the chat room. This is a book, finally, about joy. You may despair when you read it, and then you may do something magnificent." --pg. xiii, The Plain Reader, c.1998 Center for Plain Living.

That last sentence sounds a lot like the season of Lent. There is something mightily compelling about that movement from despair to magnificent action. As we've read through the essays and discussed them together, we've tried to reflect on the sources of our own despair--and the seeds we struggle to plant and tend, the seeds of what we hope will be our contribution to that nebulous, longed-for magnificence.

We read about people who willingly chose to live without television, as we have chosen ourselves. We read about a pastor who wrestled with appropriate technology and compromised with the use of a laptop for sermon-writing, as hours were freed up for more human interactions. We read about people who gave up their cars for horses and buggies, people who willingly live without running water, in order to honour the needs of the rest of Creation.

This is a thought that has prodded at the edges of my mind for many weeks--that our petty suffering and sense of inconvenience SHOULD move us away from selfish conceits towards solidarity with the greater human condition, where clean, running, heated water is a rarity. It would be more radical, more faithful, to freely and actively give up plumbing for Lent. (The hard part, for us, was not having the choice.) It would be even more radical to give it up for longer, perhaps for life. Think of the bills saved, the water unwasted. Think of the effort and care required to give one's wastes back to the earth in a way that ensures health and sustainability. Would this be a retreat to something more primitive, or would it be an advance?

I try to imagine Jesus and his closest friends on a farm. Judas would be the guy stressing about the composting toilet, worrying about livestock feed consumption and the daily accounting of eggs laid. Those things are important, but there must also be room for Mary of Bethany who broke open her precious jar, anointed Jesus, and earned a place in Christian history for her bold, fragrant, prophetic act. This is the central challenge of Lent, I believe, and the reason we felt moved to revisit "The Plain Reader." In a time when resources seem scarce and human kindness scarcer, we are called to push the edges of generosity. In a time of destructive patterns and impulses, we are called to greater creativity. In a time when pundits declare "it's all over" and "the sky is falling", we are called--as stewards of the earth--to boldly feed the soil, plant and tend seeds, shore up and mend the sheltering power of the earth, and joyfully declare that abundance shall reign again.

It's still Lent. We are oh, so broken and the times are oh, so dark. But, as the seed must break open in the dark earth, so we must turn our efforts towards dreaming of New Creation in all the tumbling glory of its myriad, colourful forms. We must beat the swords into plowshares and till our despair under. We must turn the graves into furrows. We must reclaim joy and laughter as we play in the dirt, and proclaim the promise in the rhythms of our work-songs.

The time will come when we live into something creative, something magnificent. The time will come when jars will break open, when blossoms will burst forth, when bowls will brim and overspill with berries.

In the dreaming of it, in the waking of it, and in the making of it,
We are almost home.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Flushed With Gratitude


Lent's not done yet, so I'm rather conflicted about this announcement. However,as one of my OFJ (Off-Farm Job) co-workers pointed out, we gave up plumbing long before Lent began. Calculating the time since we moved into the unplumbed new house and the pipes froze in the old one, we seem to have fulfilled the requisite forty days of de-privy-ation.

Our first functional fixture was, thankfully, the privy. A genuine porcelain throne, (purchased "gently used" for $50), now graces our little loo. We are, you might say, "sitting" pretty. We couldn't have done this without our Princely Plumber, (pictured above), and we are truly flushed with gratitude. I felt like crying with joy, a feeling about which I'm unapologetic. Hey, it's my potty, and I'll cry if I want to!

Next in was the shower, and we confirmed that cleanliness is next to Godliness when water streamed down from the Holy Spigot on high. (Of course, our shower wouldn't have had a prayer, had we not received a free second-hand hot water tank late last year. It came from our Infamous EX-Plumber, about whom we're still in a lather... If we ever track him down, it'll be curtains, for sure.)

But enough stalling. Next we went on a reconnaissance mission and marched the washing machine over from the old house. We hooked it up in our tiny utility room, then, with a triumphant roll of the drum, we loaded up and soldiered through lights and darks, then hung our colours proudly.

After a bit of R & R, we went off and explored the counter culture. The Piper's Son worked with us to cut and install our donated kitchen countertops. (A friend of a friend was redoing her kitchen and begged us to cart them off.) They came with a used stainless steel sink. It took a couple of days for us to get caulky enough, but eventually we achieved that old sinking feeling. After that, we happily washed our hands of the matter.

Some places boast of bells and whistles, claiming to offer "everything but the kitchen sink." For us, it's the bathroom sink that's left out of the picture. (According to The Piper's Son, there's something complicated about the wall-mounting process that he plans to tackle at a later date.) We do, however, have all the requisite water lines installed and operational nozzles and hoses in place, carefully positioned above one of those ubiquitous farm accoutrements, a five-gallon bucket. We don't mind this rustic handwashing station, after all we've been through. It'll work just fine, as long as nobody kicks the bucket!

Our deepest thanks go out to Katie for the counter/sink, Habitat for Humanity's local "ReStore" for cheap bathroom fixtures, #@%$&! for the hot water heater, Alan and Justin for septic system excavation, Bruce & Kevin for tools and advice, Dan for his incredibly generous gift of professional skills and labour, and especially The Piper's Son for his long hours of construction and contractor support.

(I apologize for all the bathroom humour, but we just feel so plumb lucky!)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Out of Dirt

"Recall that whatever lofty things you might accomplish today, you will do them only because you ate first something that grew out of dirt." --Barbara Kingsolver

The Bagpiper brought home this lovely quote yesterday. She brought it home to a woman weary of dirt's intimate acquaintance, weary of dirt's clinginess, the closeness of decay and the poverty of the soil.

We have a long-running joke about our life here in Maine, that it consists of hardships such as "digging in the ground with sticks." For the last five days, I have been doing exactly that, grubbing and chipping away at frozen clay in the crawlspace under our house, equipped with a motley array of hand-tools that twisted, bent, and--in one case--broke under the force and strain. I did indeed try to dig in the ground with that stick, as my alternative was to arduously extricate myself from under the house to search for something else.

I have been digging drainpipe trenches, a job which would have been merely annoying in the still-warm soil of Autumn. Working in a crawlspace (wigglespace is more accurate) amidst patches of permafrost and icemelt has reduced the job's charm considerably. That said, it was work that had to be done, and no-one else was willing to do it. Given the choice between unpleasant work and life unplumbed, what would YOU choose?

Thus it was that I found myself on intimate terms with the dirt. Those who make their living on the land must seek such intimacy, though only rarely in crawlspaces! We learn to admire its contours and its distinctive scents. We attune ourselves to its changes. We strive to enrich it. We tend to its health.

The earth under the house was musty, heavy with the scent of decaying leaf litter. Brushing away the loose top layer of pale sandy loam, I began to scrape and chip into heavy clay. It was damp and cold, with a faint hint of a metallic mineral scent. Even if exposed to sunlight, this soil would produce no crop. It would require more organic enrichment than the few scattered droppings of a barn cat and yard-strolling chickens. It could be put to better use by a potter than a farmer. (Wouldn't it be grand fun to eat home-grown food on home-grown dishes?)

Still, we work. As the first snowdrops emerge, their pale blossoms shining, we, too stretch toward the sun and bend to touch the earth. We labour as stewards of Creation because it is most essential. Later this Spring, we will till compost and ashes into the garden and plant hundreds of hopeful seeds. Later this Spring, we will till and plant new pastures, fence them in, and plan for the introduction of pigs and cattle to add further fertility. Later, too, we will mulch, weed, prune, and harvest. We will take great savoury bites of soil transformed into produce of rampant ripeness and soul-satisfying feasts.

And here I've learned,
In this Hardscrabble school:
We come from clay.
We come from ashes, yes, and from the earth.
We require the tender urgency of leaves.
We depend on hidden roots.
All that we are emerges from the soil.
All that once was will be, will rise, again.
What is most holy is most humble.
What is most blessed is underfoot.

--copyright Mainecelt, Spring Equinox, 2009

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

St. Bridgit and the Bag-Lady

Six weeks or so past St. Bridgit's Feast, with light and warmth returning at long last, I head out to make my morning rounds. The overgrown broiler birds--all cockerels--crow in motley harmony from the barn. The treacherous frozen expanse of the driveway melts into mucky troughs and merry rivulets. The sun dances down from behind the trees and I catch it blowing kisses across the snow.

It is time, I decide, for treats and Spring Tonics. Along with fresh water, the birds get the remains of last week's gallon of raw milk. (With The Bagpiper's Son gone the last few weeks, we never manage to drink a full gallon before it's time to pick up the next one.) It's on the edge of turning, but still good and soothing to their winter-stressed systems.

Next, a new bale of shavings is spread in each of the poultry pens. Where it was musty and slightly sour, the air of the wee barn's newly redolent with resiny sweetness. We pay special attention to the nest boxes, where our twelve Gingers and the occasional Bantam have been splendidly generous with their eggs. Even in the darkest Winter depths, the dear lasses gave at least eight eggs a day, and now we are back to a full daily dozen. Thank God for them--no matter what else we've lacked, we NEVER lack for eggs!

I open the wee door at the back of the barn so the birds can stretch their legs and roam in the yard. Just above their door, the climbing hydrangea has new growth showing and fat, swelling buds. Still, the hens seem hesitant. Even after long acquaintance, they do not relish the feel of snow on their scaly yellow feet.

Inside the barn rest two enormous plastic bags. They are full of bread. This is not the pasty pre-sliced stuff from the big industrial bakeries--oh, no. The bags are filled with a panoply of rounds, baguettes, focaccia, dinner rolls, and sticky spiced fruit-breads. They come from two local bakeries by way of the food bank, which releases its leftover, unclaimed donations to any local farmer that wants them.

Now, when the food bank receives this bread, it's only a day old. By the time it comes to us farmers, it's usually three days old. The dinner rolls and oat bread can be broken open by hand, but some of those lovely "artisan" loaves have to be sliced with a shovel before the animals can enjoy them!

The Bagpiper tosses several rolls into the poultry pens. They scarcely come to rest on the freshly-spread wood shavings before the excited birds descend, pecking them open and running off into corners with tasty morsels balanced in their beaks.

Meanwhile, I work at breaking the bigger loaves to give the cattle a treat. (We don't give our cattle grain on a regular basis, so the chunks of bread cause quite a stir. To ensure that the Alpha Cow doesn't vacuum everything up, we always prepare "cow communion" with more than enough for everyone.) I sort through the bags and pack one of them up with plenty of cow bread, sling the heavy plastic bag over my shoulder, and start down the barn ramp, headed over to the pasture. A sudden rush of wings behind me, coupled with an unbalancing added weight, tells me one of the Gamecocks came along for the ride!

The cattle are idly chewing their way through a massive round bale of "haylage." It has a clean, spritely, pickle-ish scent, sort of like hay sauerkraut. They're pretty enthusiastic about it, normally, but hooves and eyes shift when they see the Bag-Lady coming their way. They know that treats come in bags. They jostle and shove each other for a prime spot, then stare with appalled disbelief as I fling the chunks of bread far and wide. I try to be fair, first throwing some 12-grain bread to greedy Iona and her pushy bull calf, then heaving sweet apple-spice chunks off to the sides for Maisie and April, the two meeker heifers. (The gamecock has long since fluttered off, unnerved by all the bird-sized, edible projectiles.)

The sun is warm on my back. From the tall pines at the pasture's edge comes a raven's raucous, chuckling call. I stand in the snowy yard, savouring our creaturely communion. I don't want to go in, but there are more creatures there to tend: The Bagpiper and I require breakfast, and a certain Border Collie is getting desperate for her morning game of "Find It-Bring It-Give!"

Back to the house I go, preparing for another phase of the morning's familiar rhythms. I open the door... and find feline and canine on the Forbidden Couch, enjoying a little communion of their own!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Falling Stars, Singing Pipes

It is daybreak, and the stars are falling.

At least, that's how it looks this morning, as heavy wet snow-stars plummet, filling the span between cottage and woods with their silent, stunning artillery. Sleet is predicted for much of the day, a staunch declaration that Spring is seeping out from under Winter's hard and icy grip.

It has been the sort of winter when one questions Spring's return. We have known the time Gaels call Am Faoilteach, "the Wolf Month," when hunger and fear leave their sharp indentations on even the most well-armoured souls.

"What though the tempest round me roars, I know the Truth, it liveth;
What though the darkness round me falls, songs in the night it giveth."

Songs in the night have been few and far between, though I've tried and tried to be brave. I love this old song, (circa 1864, attrib. to Anne Warner), and--usually--I love Winter. But I confess I've done precious little singing. The best I could manage, most days, was a snatch or two of wordless whistling, usually slip jigs with their defiant, springy rhythms. I believe in the power of words, of naming things into being, but my faith became so hesitant and timid that my dearest hopes were no longer among the things I could name.

And then the plumber called.

What? A plumber? One of those people who play with pipes, who put the pipes together, add water, and make them sing? A real honest-to-goodness PLUMBER?!?

Aye, a plumber called. It seems The Bagpiper's Son, a wandering woodsman, had met a plumber's son on his travels--verily, the Son of a Living Plumber. The plumber's son heard our tale of woe and said, "Fear not, for the Plumber is with you, and he shall mend your plumbing and make it whole."

Blessed are they who believe what they have not seen...well, we had indeed begun to suspect that plumbers were mythical creatures, mere will-o'-wisps at the edge of our imaginings. Our regular calls to our previous plumber had become like desperate prayers to a distant and silent saviour, if you'll forgive this slight blasphemy. We pleaded, we bargained, we ranted and raved... in short, we made absolute fools of ourselves on that man's answering machine, to no avail.

But yesterday, the weather began to warm. Our hearts dared to lift. There were portants in the heavens. The moon was waxing gibbous. Long had we waited in unwashed darkness... And Lo, unto us a plumber was given. And the tools were in his bag and the mantle of his credentials was on his shoulders: He is a plumber and retired professional engineer who regularly works with Habitat for Humanity. He has plumbed many houses. Within a few hours he had measurements taken, floor plans and schematics drawn, and a parts list written. Oh, Hallelujah Chorus!

Now, like any long-unused system, our faith has gone rusty and stiff. It is hard work to shake things loose and exercise our belief, allow ourselves to trust again. The Bagpiper has not done much piping, and I have not done much singing, but now The Plumber Has Come and perhaps we shall dig down and reconnect to the sweet well of music again. It is hard to believe, but The Plumber says work can begin next week. It is hard to believe, but this project is being enscribed, copied in triplicate, and named into being.

"My life flows on in endless song above earth's lamentation...
I hear the real, tho' far-off hymn that hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear that music ringing--
It sounds an echo in my soul; how can I keep from singing?"

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Fire in the Hole = Water in the Bucket!

I love salamanders. I love to walk down to the creekbed in spring, settle myself down in the moss, and watch for their slender wee forms to wriggle up out of the mud when they don't know a giant's watching. I love to watch them swim in sylvan pools and creep along the margins, their fire-colored bellies lighting the shadows in faint glinting hints...

But today, I'm in love with another kind of salamander.

Last night we drove over to Mr. Ed's. Desperate with anxiety over our absolute lack of running water, we asked to borrow his salamander. For those of you who've never set eyes on one of these beasties, a salamander (a.k.a. "torpedo heater") is an elongated and rather fearsome-looking heater designed to provide heat in challenging but well-ventilated areas such as construction sites. Here in the North Country, it is also used--often improperly, at great risk--in homes during power outages, or employed to thaw frozen plumbing.

It was this last application that attracted our attention. Mr. Ed brough it over in early January when the pipes in our old house first froze up. We fired the monster up and high-tailed it outside to avoid the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Ten minutes later, the kitchen pipes were completely thawed and the interior of the house had jumped from 30 to about 80 degrees. We took that opportunity to drain out the entire system and avoid further damage.

A week later, we had a one of those "January Thaws" that steal in and stick around just long enough to mix up our winter wardrobes and taunt us with vague summery rememberings. It went up into the 40s and we got overconfident, turned the old house plumbing back on, did some laundry, butchered a few chickens, and reveled in faucets and flushes. After one of those 40-degree days, we blythely went to bed...and woke up the next morning to a temp of -23 and frozen--now burst--plumbing. We couldn't borrow Ed's salamander at the time, as it was then making the rounds of his various and sundry down-and-out relatives.

Last night, though, we borrowed it back. It was an excuse for a visit with Ed, who always seems gruffly happy for our company. "Hey, Kiddo," he called out to The Bagpiper from his old orange couch, where he was resting with a propped-up bum leg. "I see you brought your shadow with ya!"

Mr. Ed dug out his keyring and showed The Bagpiper the key to the garage. "Now, you girls just go out to that shed yonder and load that puppy right into your little soup-a-roo." (He finds it tremendously amusing that we use our Subaru for tasks that really deserve A Big Ol' Truck. To keep him on his toes, we sometimes ask to borrow his truck, too.)

We did laundry at the laundromat on the way home, hung it on the rack by the woodstove to dry, then entertained the Border Collie with several minutes of "Go! Find It! Give It!" At that point, we admitted to ourselves that it was too cold, too dark, and we were just too grumpy to do anything more about plumbing until the morning. We slept fitfully, haunted and taunted by our seemingly eternal wait on tradesMEN to fix all our problems.

The Bagpiper woke first, stomping down the plywood stairs to start a fire at four A.M. She angrily attacked the firewood pile, chiseling a few pieces loose from the ice that had built up under a poorly-secured tarp. I pulled the covers over my head and attempted to fall back asleep, but I knew there was no way of avoiding the work ahead of us: as soon as it was light, we dragged and hauled that borrowed salamander over sculpted snowdrifts and down icy banks, ducking under the lashing bud-laden branches of the untrimmed forsythias. We kicked against the cellar door until it finally creaked inward, then woman-handled and rumble-thumped the firebeast into place. The goal was to aim the heat-stream at the water pressure tank in the old house cellar hole, to see if this act might somehow loosen up the system and allow our outside field hydrants to function.

(Privately, I was convinced that it wouldn't work. I was fairly certain the hydrants were a separate system, independent of the pressure tank. I was also fairly certain that the true source of our problem was a dead water pump, the replacement of which would be a very exhausting and expensive propostion. If we had a plumber who EVER answered his phone, we could have made a simple call or two to troubleshoot the system. But that would be too easy.)

The Bagpiper plugged the salamander in. Down in the damp darkness of the cellar hole, it emitted a series of quiet clicks and then suddenly roared to life, breathing fire. Oh, Wizardry! Oh, Saints Preserve Us and Thaw Our Plumbing! We rushed out the door, clambered up the snowbank, and went back into the old house. After about ten minutes of spelunking, The Bagpiper trekked back down to the cellar, shut the beast off, and threw the switch at the plumbing shut-off valve. Standing upstairs in the grubby, fridgid kitchen, I listened to the faint hiss and gurgle of filling pipes, followed by a rushing, spattering sound under the sink. Ahah! So THAT'S the burst pipe! I yelled "Got It!" through the floor-grate, waited for the water to be shut off again, then went out to test the the cold-water hydrant in the new house. Oh, rapture! Oh, glorious cascade! Under the lifted handle, the old black bucket was filling with a burbling, singing, stream of clear, fresh water!

Oh, I DO love salamanders...

(Next on the list: get all my seed-starting gear set up in the new house, repair the burst pipe, then heat up the old kitchen, sharpen my knife, and butcher those poor beyond-ready broiler chickens!)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Weather or Not...

Today I ventured out on snowshoes to check all the "frost-free" field hydrants, on the off chance that I might be able to gather some water. (Our cold-water hydrant in the house stopped working yesterday, so now I really CAN say that I've given up plumbing--entirely--for Lent.) All the handles lifted easily, but none produced water. I'm beginning to suspect that all the frozen nights and a few power outages somehow fried our well pump, a possibility almost too awful and expensive to imagine. We've set a little milkhouse heater in the old house cellar, next to the pressure tank, on the off chance that will help. The chickens got warmed snow (water) from the old sap-boiling pan on our woodstove. The cows will make do with the snow I shoveled into the cattle trough (hooray for the in-tank heater).

In the meantime, I'm dancing carefully on the edge of the vortex of despair. Regardless of the purpose for my little snowshoe adventure, the wind was low and the sun was bright, making for a beautiful winter day. Here are a few scenes from my little journey:

Road to Nowhere?

The Windswept Plains of Maine

From the old cellar hole: Onward and Upward!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Cold Pipes and Warm Ashes

I'm giving up plumbing for Lent.

Just kidding. If you've been following our story, you know that we've been living without plumbing since early January, when we moved into our unfinished cottage out of a desperate desire to stay warm. After a succession of unfortunate plumbers (or lack thereof), I am cautiously happy to report that we seem to have secured the services of a generous retired plumber, due to start about two weeks hence. Frankly, I'll believe it when I pee it--and afterwards, we'll all be flushed with pride!

Bathroom humour aside, it IS Lent, when many people of faith engage themselves with the spiritual discipline of self-denial. Chocolate is a common choice. Frivolous entertainment is another--though it may mean less to give up movies or tv shows now that they're easily accessed through downloads/Netflix. While I embrace the idea of personal sacrifice readily enough, my Lenten choices are always complicated by my birthday, which usually falls in the early part of Lent. My idea of spiritual discipline does not extend to include the denial of one's own birthday cake. I don't think God would be particularly enriched, honoured, or eddified by this. If I read the scriptures correctly, Jesus himself was a "life is short; let's have some cake together" kind of guy.

This year, my birthday came on Ash Wednesday. Instead of blowing out candles on some big ol' homemade cake, I went to a pancake supper at our church, helped clear away the paper plates and rearrange the folding chairs, then attended a brief evening service where my forehead was marked with ashes.

"Remember that from dust you came and to dust you will return." Not exactly what one wants to hear on one's birthday. For a brief, macabre moment, I felt sucked into the pages of Lemony Snicket's "Series of Unfortunate Events." In the span of the past few months, I had weathered burst pipes, sub-zero temperatures, huge bills for an unseasonal excavation, missing plumbers, a car crash, and a drastic cut in available hours at my off-farm job. Now here it was, my birthday, and I was being asked to contemplate my personal dustiness? As much as I appreciate Lent and its rich array of symbolism, I just didn't feel ready to welcome the spiritual "journey into the wilderness" this year.

This morning, though, we had communion. Being "deacon of the month" (a title which implies personalized trading cards or a box of treats delivered, every thirty days, right to your door), I arrived a bit early to pour the grape juice into the chalice and prepare the communion bread. In spite of my early arrival, several of the Pillars of the Congregation were already there, calmly tending to devotional details. They wore blues and purples, colours appropriate to the ecclesiastical season. In my dark greens and browns, I hoped I was subdued enough to be "Lenty..." But the effect was somewhat spoiled by my dusty red shoes. I'd opted for them as the only ones clean enough, and in good enough repair, for church, but their jolly colour--even slightly faded--was admittedly inappropriate. I was fretting over this when our minister rushed up to confer on the morning's logistics. I admired her well-tailored black robe and lovingly-handmade quilted stole. Then I noticed her shoes.

Peeking out from underneath her very professional and appropriate preacher's outfit were a pair of red shoes--bright red shoes. Whether she caught my downward gaze or not, I don't know, but she lifted one of her feet and playfully wiggled it. "Maybe I shouldn't have worn these. They're better for Pentecost than Lent." She shrugged, laughed, and--before I could even mention my own footwear concerns--went back to preparing for the service.

Without knowing it, she resolved, by example, my conflicted approach to Lent. Her shoes and her laughter reminded me that, wherever there's smoke (or ashes, or dust), there's fire. Underneath the dark clouds, the somber moods, and the heavy robes, there's a promise of passion and a trace of flame.

This year's journey has taken me into snowdrifts, not the shifting desert sands. While Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, I find the devil in the details: the cost of feed for our animals, the dwindling firewood pile, and the daily struggle to pay our bills. I need to feel the heat and light of the Lenten story. I need to wrestle angels to get warm. I need to move close to the fire.

They say firewood warms a person four times: once in the cutting of it, once in the splitting of it, once in the stacking of it, and once in the burning of it. As I move into my own Lenten journey, my discipline is this: not to give something up, exactly, but rather to stay engaged: to dwell between embers and dancing shadows, mindful of the passion that binds us and the fire that transforms us all.

P.S. And if some of that transformative fire shows up at the end of a plumber's torch while copper pipes are being soldered, we'll welcome that fire too.