Work of Our Hands, Desire of Our Hearts

My handy dandy herb garden outside my kitchen door
Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea the work of our hands establish thou it. Psalm 90:17

At dawn, I loitered in bed after a good night’s rest. Robins, house wrens, and bluebirds sang backup music to the day’s projects rolling in my mind.
Weed raspberry patch.
Bake scones.
At last, a Saturday with no commitments away from home. I relaxed, my down pillow a luxury. I hoped for rain and a housebound morning to wash and dry loads of garden clothes. I’d hang the sheets outside if the sun prevailed. Spring-scented linens are marvelous gifts for exhausted gardeners to anticipate.
I wouldn’t step a toe off our three and a third acres from sunup to sundown. First thing, I’d bait the rabbit trap my friend Joyce loaned me and place it outside the raspberry fence. If the contraption worked, my husband the designated driver would find the critter a new home. Thus begins another attempt to live in peace with wild things that eat my flowers and food.
A whiff of rain followed by sudden percussion on the roof and eaves burrowed me deeper into meditation.
“Listen,” said that still, small voice I’ve grown to love with all my heart.
Yes, this is the hour I sever my “to do” tether and carry my stack of devotional books to my bed. There I write and read, consider the joy and salvation of God’s love and forgiveness.
The first wild pink rose to bloom after transplanting

Moments into my journal entry, a young man came to mind. I could not forget his eyes looking up to me above his glasses in a grocery store a week prior. There’s a lesson embedded in his hands that fumbled to remove a loaf of bread from the slicing machine and slide it into a bag for my purchase.
Repeatedly, his unruly fingers worked to fit the bread into the plastic bag. Repeatedly they failed until he finally succeeded. Then the lad fought the battle again with my second loaf.

I could’ve cried with gratitude for the boy’s manager who observed and guided him with kindness. He was the right person to instruct a disabled employee.
Victorious, the trainee reached my two bags of bread over the sandwich case without a word.
I couldn’t see his nametag to speak his name. “Thank you. You’ve done a fine job.”
He smiled, blinking above the frames of his eyeglasses. He hadn’t replied to his manager or me other than with a nod and shake of his head.
Dear Reader, I’m hearing what the boy’s mute service has spoken. Foremost, he could’ve been my son. To show mercy and forbearance with the works of our children’s hands is beautiful.
Furthermore, I am guilty of taking the work of my hands for granted. I now thank God for ten strong, obedient, and healthy fingers to establish the desires of my heart.
Yea, the Lord’s bounty upon my table. Upon us.

Double Portion of Miracles

My Warren hoe waits while I rest
The patio chairs nearby tempted me to sit a spell. My overworked muscles thought it a good idea.
           As our younger neighbor Peg observed earlier that day, “Tim and I are slowing down. We can’t accomplish half of what we did in a day five years ago.”
           I rested my hoe against a chair (so I wouldn’t forget my task at hand), sat, and took a long drink of cool water. In lifting my head facing west, I spied a wisp of cloud moving south in the patch of blue between pines. In a matter of lazy seconds, the dry atmosphere consumed the cloud.
           Mesmerized, I lingered, hoped for another vanishing act. It’s a miracle, I mused, when a white, gauzy blotch drifted and disappeared.
           Justifiably, I know our land—its flowers, food, and thistles—more intimately than I do the sky. Earthbound with eyes fixed on soil conditions throughout successive growing seasons, I’ve neglected the heavens above.
           Revived and diverted, I slowed my pace, paused my hoe and sought another cloud, and another, until my soul was satisfied with a double portion of miracles.
The first Larkspur to bloom in my gardens

           That evening after a homegrown asparagus dinner, my husband found his place on the living room sofa. I returned to my study.
“Listen to this,” he said from his supine position.
“Is it bad news?” I replied.
“No. Wendell Berry.”
Safe enough. “One of his essays?”
“Yes. The Work of Local Culture.
I left my reading. “One of my favorites.”
My other half read aloud the opening of Berry’s essay published in 1988.
For many years, my walks have taken me down an old fencerow in a wooded hollow on what was once my grandfather’s farm. A battered galvanized bucket is hanging on a fence post near the head of the hollow, and I never go by it without stopping to look inside. For what is going on in that bucket is the most momentous thing I know, the greatest miracle that I have ever heard of: it is making earth.
Mel continued to list the dead and decaying matter the Kentucky poet and farmer saw in the bucket that created soil. We've witnessed this “momentous thing” on our little homestead in the most surprising places.
He read a story from Berry’s childhood about farmhands boiling eggs in the bucket, and that it remains on the fence post as a significant “sign” that reminds him of that story and his community’s culture.
Meanwhile, in my mind, the greatest miracle Berry ever heard of hung in a bucket on a fence post below the miracle of evaporating clouds. For we survive and thrive on the wonder of making soil. And this requires rain, wind, and sun.
Separate and harmonious, these miracles endure to sustain life as they have for unknown ages.
Dear Reader, consider this: God’s hand never wearies. From season to season, as Berry says, making earth “is the chief work of the world.”
The inventor of my Warren hoe understood this.

A Misfit Skips Kindergarten

Iris and her younger sister Libby, summer 1955

After lunch, Mom and Libby kissed me good-bye for kindergarten. I walked down the front porch steps in my dress, anklets, and saddle shoes.
Fresh from Appalachia, I had endured my first winter in Detroit when this warm, blue sky filled with birdsong and leafy branches blew in. All the more, I missed our green apple trees back home in Kentucky—my faithful hiding place.
I dreaded passing Seven Mile Road’s noisy traffic on my walk to school. When my teacher first opened the windows to springtime, those three hours at my desk seemed an eternity.
My classroom couldn’t supply what my soul needed most that June day. Of course I was too young to see the plain truth. My parents, teacher, and principal didn’t see it either.
Mom’s voice echoed in my mind. “Now don’t dilly-dally, Iris. And don’t come back home again.”
No, Mom was a grownup and couldn’t see I was a misfit. She was preoccupied settling into a new neighborhood with Dad and my two sisters and me. I was in the middle.
My older sister Linda went to the special Open Window classroom all day because she had asthma. She and her fellow students took naps in reclining wooden chairs. I preferred recess to naps.
In broad daylight, there wasn’t one person outside on Yacama Street, on their porch or in their yard. Even the young lady kitty-corner from our house didn’t sit on her front porch steps with a mug in one hand and cigarette in the other. I had asked Mom why our neighbor wore her robe in the middle of the day.
“Because she works the night shift.”
My older cousin Jan moved from Kentucky to work the night shift for Michigan Bell Telephone Company as an operator. Perhaps that’s where the neighbor lady worked.
I stopped on the sidewalk and turned back, homesick for who and what I knew, loved, and left in the McCoy Bottom—for who and what knew and loved me. I longed to hug Old Shep’s neck, and run the dirt path past the old red barn to watch Uncle Hermie’s chickens peck and scratch.
The desire for familiar adventure led me to the tall, wide tree in front of our house. I sat with my back to the rough bark and faced the street to hide from Mom. When Linda returned from school, we’d walk up the steps together.
My plan might’ve worked if I hadn’t dozed off and awoke with bird doo-doo splattered on my head. I hadn’t considered that consequence.
Mom gasped at my unexpected appearance. With pursed lips, she placed my head under the bathtub spigot and scrubbed my hair and scalp with aggressive retribution.
“Don’t ever come back home from school again unless you’re sick,” she ordered.
The one who knew and loved me most hovered over me, determined I at last learn my lesson.
I did, dear Reader. I learned homesickness was not an excused absence, so I took to earaches. That’s the plain truth.

Letter to My Muse Regarding Jules Michelet (1798-1874)

Edwin Blashfield's Prose Mural under the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the Detroit Public Library
My Dear Heavenly Muse,
When I consider whom you’ve inspired throughout your Chronicles of Time—Moses on Mt. Sinai, Michelangelo under the Sistine Chapel—I imagine your hand upon Edwin Blashfield’s shoulder while he stood on the balustrade of the Detroit Public Library. Thank you for whispering Jules Michelet into his ear. I may never have met him otherwise.
It’s a pleasant surprise to become acquainted with a French writer who cherished his country’s history and wasn’t a womanizer. Also, I’d never heard the term “Huguenot” which describes the religious traditions of Michelet’s family tied to 1517 in Wittenberg, Germany. Yes, the place you inspired Martin Luther to nail his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door. There, he offered Christians another manner to worship within the Protestant Reformation.
John Calvin (1509-1564), a Frenchman and Huguenot, supported the Reformation. Calvin influenced his kinsmen to leave the Roman Catholic Church and embrace Christian worship from Biblical texts in a more personal relationship with God.
Unlike many Huguenots of that period who fled the violence of French Catholics and kings for refuge in the New World, the Michelets remained in France. Over a hundred years later, Jules was born in Paris in August 1798. His father was a printer of meager means who kept his son in school with high expectations. 
Michelet published his Introduction à l'histoire universelle in 1831. In 1838 he was appointed professor at the Collège de France where he held the chair of History and Ethics. His "peculiar romantic and visionary qualities" made him one the most stimulating of all historians.
His account "featured his tendency to indulge in historical suggestions which, although associated with solid facts, are not always trustworthy. The Introduction à l'histoire universelle was in fact partly inspired by the anti-rationalist approach of the philosopher Vico who had proclaimed the triumph of the imagination over analysis."
  Michelet completed his study Histoire de France in 1867, one hundred years before I graduated from high school. The work contains over 19 volumes. And that's without a word processor. Most authorities say Michelet was perhaps the first historian to imagine anything like "a picturesque history of the middle ages." They say his account is "still the most vivid that exists." 
Michelet's "style, emotional strength, and powerful evocation make Histoire de France a masterpiece of French literature." He "traced the biography of the nation as a whole, instead of concentrating on persons or groups of persons.”
Hmmm…I like that word “traced”, Muse. I trace my history and the Protestant tradition of my ancestors. It all began with Luther. I am part of the whole from Germany, Ireland, Scotland, and Appalachia.  
Who knows (other than you), with 90% DNA Northern European, I could be related to Michelet. That would explain my passion for history. What do you think? Just what do you have in mind for my history and stories? 
I write and wait patiently for your reply.

Iris Lee Underwood