The Bible says that in marriage the two should be as one. But when I married Meghan, after the ceremony and the honeymoon, I noticed the two of us simply returned to doing the same things we had been doing before. We worked at separate places, drove separate cars a long way from home, and returned in the evening to watch television and sleep under the same roof. Early on, I was admittedly so excited to share a home at night that I didn’t miss seeing her during the day. But when the kids began to come, we both quickly began to feel overwhelmed. Despite sleeping in the same bed, albeit with the occasional child between us, we often felt more separated than we had felt before our marriage.
My wife and I both worked at jobs, which we may or may not have enjoyed, because these jobs combined to help pay for the lifestyle we thought we wanted. We needed two cars because of our two jobs, and when we were not working we were taking a son to soccer, a daughter to piano lessons, another son to a program at the library. These were in addition to our three-times-a-week church services. A majority of the meals we ate were prepared by strangers, handed to us in little paper bags through a window and eaten (separately) in one of our two cars because there was no time to sit down at home together. And all this was somehow supposed to be good for the kids’ socialization.
When you work together, you need one another.
For me, there had always been a temptation to move to greener grass. More money, a better job, a bigger house. But that bigger house came with increased financial stress, which led to me working more, my wife worrying about paying bills, and my children having less of both parents. So the greener grass that was supposed to bring more joy actually cost us more than just money.
When we decided that we couldn’t go on this way, when we began to wonder if there could be a different way to raise our children and live the life we had been given, we moved to the country. I would not argue that we had to move to slow down, nor that this solved all our problems. In fact, we quickly found that it was just as easy to fill our lives with busyness in a rural community – we just had to drive farther to get to the soccer games and piano lessons. But for us, moving to a small community where we could have a little piece of land gave us the opportunity to begin a different way of life. We desired to invest our lives in what we believed to be an important part of our world, one that was struggling to survive. And we felt the relationships and values we might find in a small community would fit with the direction we were trying to go.
We also knew we wanted to be more connected to the food we ate. We wanted to grow and prepare at least some of it with our own hands. This opened up opportunities to teach our children where our food comes from, and to discover with them the blessings of meaningful manual work. With the work done, it seemed equally important and rewarding to sit down at a table and eat together.
Our new life has not come without its share of challenges, false starts, and rude awakenings. You don’t become a farmer just by telling people you have decided to become a farmer. You don’t make friends just by moving into a neighborhood. You don’t earn trust just by thinking you are trustworthy. All of this takes time. So much time.
One of the great difficulties was that, despite our good intentions and nostalgic notions of slowing down – let alone bigger aspirations of community restoration or reviving small, local economies – we found ourselves alone. We were surrounded by good people, beautiful, generous, kind neighbors, but at least in the beginning, we underestimated how difficult it would be to become trusted members of the community – good neighbors ourselves.
You don’t earn trust just by thinking you are trustworthy. All of this takes time.
This wasn’t anyone’s fault but our own. No one wants you to move into their community and talk about how you’re going to “fix” it. And yes, in our attempt to “escape the rat race,” we had envisioned something deeper too, a return to health not just for ourselves but for our new community. When we moved to Wheatley, we found out that the people here were busy too. Family farmers, in particular, have to work ridiculously long hours just to survive. Living here didn’t necessarily create a slower pace of life. Our struggle to make time to live in a place, and most importantly to build relationships, would go on.
When you work together, you need one another. Meghan and I discovered that we had a lot to learn, and some of our new endeavors would mean that we needed each other and our neighbors in ways we hadn’t known before. Not just emotionally, but in very tangible and practical ways. I have borrowed countless tools from neighbors. They have come to assist (and instruct) me in erecting a new fence or a woodshed. We count on our children to help feed the animals in the mornings and evenings. In addition to being the primary educator of our children at four different grade levels, Meghan simultaneously carries the bulk of our home’s work. But she calls on all of us to help clean the house, or to prepare meals for ourselves and the friends we now have time to invite over for dinner. We need one another to keep weeds out of the garden, to bed the stalls, to spread the compost, to mow the grass, to water the animals, to keep an eye on the lambs during lambing season. I daresay we enjoy being together in this way more than we enjoyed running all over town to different sports practices. And if some piece of “labor-saving” technology came along to rescue us from the “drudgery” of our work together, then I hope I would have the wisdom to realize what such a machine might actually cost our family.
Our place, like our marriage, is made up of a host of practical things. There’s the kitchen, with the decorations we hung, the paint we chose, that one cabinet door that hangs open just a little after we close it. Those glasses, what’s left of them, that we’ve had since Aunt Mary gave them to us at our wedding shower. We don’t even like them very much anymore, but they’ve been here the whole time, a part of the household and the marriage. There’s the house itself – despite its humble size, a mansion full of memories valuable beyond any calculable worth. It’s not just any house; it’s ours. It can’t be replaced by a “better” one no matter how big or new, any more than our kids could be replaced by healthier, smarter, or better-looking children.
There’s the backyard, the barn, the fields, the woods, where the children run around and explore what to them is a vast country. Every year the grass comes up so fast and every year I praise the spring and the Lord for new grass and new lambs to eat it. Then finally it stops growing. And before long the leaves of the big maple tree turn a brilliant yellow and I realize I’ll have to get a ladder pretty soon and get them all out of the gutters. Even after several years I am surprised by the brightness of that beautiful tree in October when I come in from work. I love that tree, connected as it is now to so many memories, even the time our youngest son fell out of it when he was six and had to have two stitches in his tongue. It’s always been here with us.
Like the tree, some of the families in our community seem to have been here since the beginning of time. Our house was sold to us by Doug and Rita Ball, following an initial rental period. One of the most remarkable memories I have of the Ball family, who are still our good neighbors, is that rental agreement. I was a young father and teacher from Louisville, totally unfamiliar with the community and searching hurriedly for a place to move my family in August, with a new school year approaching. Doug, a retired Owen County teacher himself, called me out of the blue one day, having acquired my phone number because he heard through a web of teacher connections that a young man was looking for a place to live. A few days later we drove to Wheatley. Doug and Rita showed us the home and then we sat on the back porch and discussed what we thought would be a fair price for the rent, while the kids ran around in the yard. We shook hands, and that was it. The only agreement was a verbal one, sealed by a courteous smile on a warm summer day.
For Doug, this was the way it had been done in the past: a man’s word was his bond. No lawyers or contracts necessary. For me, this was new. Not only had the Balls’ generosity resulted in our getting a better deal than we could have hoped, but I was thrilled to think that there was a place in the world where people could still be trusted to do what they said they would. To find such people. To be trusted as such a person myself. Doug and Rita had taken a chance, based on a quick estimation of my family and our character and decided that indeed we might be adequate tenants and neighbors. Later, when it came time to purchase the place, the process was equally smooth and fair – though this time the bankers did insist that a bit of paperwork be filed.
When I meet an Owen County native and want to tell him where I live, I am apt to say, “We live in the old Ball place at the end of Jewel, across from the church. Do you know Doug and Rita?” That’s usually enough. And if it weren’t, I could reach back a little further to the days when, before Rita became Mrs. Ball, she was the young Miss Suter and our farm was the Suter place. In those years Mr. Ball found work and favor with Mr. Suter – and apparently with his daughter as well – enough to be allowed to marry into the family and continue to care for the place for many years to come.
Even after several years I am surprised by the brightness of that beautiful tree.
A good marriage gives life and stability to the community where it has set its roots. But this cannot happen without the discipline of staying. A nomadic tree, one that is constantly being uprooted, even if it is to supposedly better and better locations, cannot hope to flourish, and might be lucky to survive. The Balls’ marriage has taken its place in the community so firmly that even I am admitted to the Wheatley Commonwealth by its good reputation. I have been delighted many times over to have the good fortune to be able to learn the history of an old pear tree, a barn, or a cistern on what I am now blessed to call “the Brooks place” because of my good neighbors and the life they have created here, staying put and showing fidelity and care to one another, their community, and their place.
Of course, all our lives have been altered by the pandemic. While areas of denser population have unique difficulties, in rural communities we are struggling too. Like everyone else, we’re wrestling with staying home. While we are thankful for fresh air and extra family time, we are not immune to the pains of withdrawal from our previous lifestyles of busyness and consumerism. I used to suppose that if I could just move to a place with no advertisements, I wouldn’t feel that strange yearning to go out and buy something. But I haven’t yet found such a place.
My two-year-old daughter, Shirley, and I took a walk to deliver some pictures she had drawn, with a few Minnie Mouse stickers added for good measure, to the homes of the two women who work the nursery in our church. Due to social distancing concerns, these visits were just drop-offs. Shirley walked to the front door with me and we taped the pictures to the inside of the storm door. Shirley waved at the door and said “Bye Mrs. Joycie” and “Bye Mrs. Peggy” as we left the houses. I didn’t see either of them. They messaged my wife later in the evening to thank Shirley.
In this strange moment in history, it feels like I am being asked again to rethink what my life has become, how quickly my little ones have grown up, and how long it has been since I sat at our picnic table in the quiet of the garden, early in the morning. On our walk home, I wondered why we hadn’t taken the time to make such a visit before, in a summer past, when there was no coronavirus and the weather was fine. I regretted how often I had driven by and waved at my neighbors sitting on their porch, who would have enjoyed a visit from our family.
Even – especially – through hardship, this has been a time to remember and recommit to these intentions. To play in the yard with my kids or sit on the porch with my wife. To plant a garden. To look forward to the chance to once again visit with friends. To be a better neighbor. To remember the way I believe we were meant to live and who we were meant to be.