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Little Illuminations

How to Write a Life Story

A Holy Experience

“Not much time left, really.”

My father’s voice on the other end of the line reminds me of my grandfather’s, determined, sure. It’s been nearly ten years since I heard that voice, but here it is again on a Sunday morning, me making beds before church, Dad making his customary Sunday morning call.

“At best, maybe fifteen years. I’m on my last chapter.” He pauses and I let the empty space beckon answers. Grandpa died at eighty. Dad will turn sixty this coming year.

I need a plan. I don’t think I’ve had one.”

I pull the sheets up, smooth out the bed’s coverlet in coming light, then wait, listening to Dad think. I’m hesitant to say anything. Best he find the way. But I’m still, just standing here, knowing that we are moving out into hallowed ground. I wait. Then venture into the space with only a question.

“Well, how do you want that last chapter to read, Dad?”

I want to end happy.”

I sit on the edge of the bed, sunlight warm on my back, and ask slowly, “And what do you think brings happiness?”

He’s probing in the silence, the back corners of being, looking for what lies in unexamined places, and I’m praying.

“More farming.”

“More farming?” I make an effort but I know the words still sound incredulous, disappointed.

“My father farmed his whole life and made nothing…. But he thought someday folks would pay farmers for their work. That might happen in my lifetime. Can’t quit now. And maybe someday the grandkids will talk about how I could grow a crop of corn.”

I can see Dad sitting at his kitchen table, looking out the bay window, watching rows of pride growing up into light.

What about the people? The relationships?” I let the words sit. They do.

And he goes in another direction, approaches it all from the other side.

“Alan Strand called the other day. He was trying to figure out whether to spend the time he’s got left restoring another tractor, buying a new engine for it, or if he should try to track down his daughter. He hasn’t heard from her in ten years. Doesn’t even know where she is.”

“And he decided?” That decision seems obvious, blazing.

“The tractor.”

I grope for meaning and the words dribble out. “He intentionally considered the options, voiced them to you… and then decided the tractor?”

“Yep. He knew how to do that. Little risk. The daughter was all risk. And you know….”

I shake my head. None of this makes any sense. And yet it does.

“Do we give up what makes us really happy — farming, restoring tractors, writing, study, whatever we are good at it— a lifetime of happiness—for a few days of happiness at the end? Do we sacrifice what makes us really happy day in and day out, for a few days of happiness with the people at the end? And there’s no guarantees with the people.”

I’m stirred. Before I can think, I rush along, finding what I’m looking for, my rock. I say the words more to myself than to him, words leaving my mouth before I can think. “Jesus said, ‘He who loses his life will gain it.’”

The other end of the line is quiet. Tentatively, I step out a bit further. “Maybe making small sacrifices in personal pursuits – doing less of our own thing in our own spheres …. maybe taking the time to enter into the bubble of the other, in the end we will know a happiness we couldn’t have imagined.”

I circle back, wondering if he’s following. “Maybe this is one way we live out what Jesus us calls us to.” I say the words again, deliberately, for they seem new to me, richer in ways I hadn’t considered. “He who loses his life will find it.”

Dad lets his voice expose where he is. “Yeah. Maybe. But maybe none of us can change really. Great artists, great actors, great politicians, its all the same. They do what makes them happy and that means they don’t have much time for people. Balance is a hard thing. Nearly impossible if we are going to do something well. And we’re wired the way we are. Maybe those around us just come to accept it.”

I hurt inside and Dad says, “I am too old to change. I know farming.”

Then he’s talking about the price you can get for a bushel of corn, the weather forecast for the next few weeks, but I’m thinking about the times I’ve been in my own bubble with my own agendas of accomplishments, drifting away from people and true happiness disguised.

I’m remembering with a strange sadness a woman standing amidst the floral memorials of her mother’s funeral, reflecting on her mother’s far-and-wide reputation for the important stuff of bleach and immaculate housekeeping. And the times I’ve chosen to wash windows, tend a flowerbed, answer an email, instead of playing a game of bananagrams with a trio of loud boys, read an Eloise Wilken story to pleading eyes. My pride was tangled up in the tasks. Why didn’t it matter more to love well? Where did I think I really would find happiness?

And I wonder if it’s the fact that relationships don’t bring us paychecks, rarely accolades. Loving well, stepping over hurt, laying aside self and desires, draws on more of our interior resources than investing in a career, a skill, a personal pursuit. And yet, there are no promotions. No public status. No guarantees.

Relationships grow only in a hot house of of humility, selflessness, open-handedness. Hard things that are inherently risky: for all that, you can’t control the outcome.

Investing in relationships requires courage. It mandates daily fortitude and intentionality to make moment by moment decisions to prioritize relationships while balancing vocational demands.

Do my daily decisions support my belief that relationship is the essence of reality? Or do I merely pay lip service while the use of my hours clearly reveals true priorities?

Dad’s talking about what he’s got to get done this week and I am my Father’s daughter.

“Look at the time.” I can see him turning there at the table, looking up at that clock ticking loudly over the kitchen sink. “What am I doing here?” He sounds disgusted. That rural work ethic. “I’ve got so much to do and here I am talking the day away with you.”

I have to smile. Dad’s customary call always ends with this customary adieu.

“Good talking with you, Dad.”

And then he’s gone. Off to write more farming, more of what he’s good at, into that last chapter. And I gather Bibles for church and more of hearing Jesus’ words to come crucify self, words I need to hear again and again.

Monday dawns a week of holidays, days of flag waving and patriotism.

Farmers don’t know holidays. Livestock needs feeding 365 days a year, crop rhythms keep time with the skies not the calendar. But we finish barn chores early, eat dinner, gather lawn chairs to head up to the lake and explosions of hues over water. Something we rarely did as kids, but trying to make memories for this generation of farm kids. Leaving the work and investing in people.

Sun’s sunk deep down into water, only a glow of embers burning along the horizon, when we find a place on shore’s edge. A place beside a man sitting in a lawn chair in the deepening dark. A man with a farmer’s cap silhouetted in night drifting in.

Shalom turns and the man sihouette turns and then she laughs, runs through the shadows. “Grandpa!”

And I smile for time made and the sacrifice written onto this day’s page.

My hand finds the shoulder of that flannel plaid jacket and he finds my hand, pulls me closer, brushes my cheek with that leathery skin.

Ann…” He nods, his voice soft, full of things he can’t say.

Dad.” I squeeze his hand, a long, lingering pulse of all I feel.

And then fireworks bloom, mirror images rocking gently on water, two spaces merging and petals of color falling. The children pull up on Grandpa’s lap, lean in close, and I think how children will talk about this yield of time, and how in our dark places, we sacrifice and find faces and light and happiness unexpected.

The skies explode and light rains down and I think of who I am in this story with these people, and what the plan is for this flash of days, and how I am my Father’s daughter.

Tonight we are not too old to take courage, sacrifice the accolades of accomplishments, and linger long with souls on the rim of time, and somewhere in the dark we forget what was lost for the tender wonder of what has been found.

Lord, today how can I die to accomplishments, pride, tasks? To do the better work of Loving well.


Two paths in our wheat field

Dad’s work clothes flapping in the wind

Dad working on tractors in his shop

Fireworks, family, and small sacrifices

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