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Marking My Way East
This weekend, I measured the orientation of every door on the farm. My front door opens perfectly northeast. My back door faces precisely southwest. The big barn door is bang on north facing, while the side barn door is due west. Chicken coop doors orient vaguely west, west, southeast, southeast, and northish, depending on which structure we’re talking about. But there is not a single thing here, not door nor window nor outbuilding that orients eastward.
I thought about this after reading a moving tribute to our late Pope Benedict, written by my friend Damian Costello. In his piece, Damian talks about all the different religious strands that thread themselves through the eastern eye of the great cosmic needle, from temple worship in ancient Israel, to early Christianity, to indigenous American spiritual practices. All of them, in one way or another, recognize and welcome the new beginnings that arise from the east.
Mid January on the farm is usually a time of new beginnings. Christmas over, it’s time for seed catalogs, dusting off greenhouse lights, and sending out emails to last year’s CSA members to urge them to join our harvest share for another season. Usually, it’s a time of rising excitement, not yet the vernal delirium of March and April, but rather the spark that starts a slow burn of anticipation and energy. It’s the shiver of new beginnings, the moment when we can still fool ourselves into thinking we can plan and order our way through the coming growing season.
This year, I feel none of it. The seed catalogs, usually shining jewels of promise in the bleakest of winter, are piling up on the kitchen bench, unopened and unexamined. The emails to last year’s customers are unwritten, and the greenhouse is dusty and disorganized. Apathy looms large over all of it, a monolith blocking out the sun, the eastern horizon, the joy of new beginnings.
I know exactly what it is. It’s two years, back to back, of disastrously extreme weather. It’s every wholesale account the farm’s landed dissolving because of covid shutdowns and a downturned economy. It’s the stress and expense of a self owned business and all those doubts and second guesses floating around in your brain. It’s needing to get a clear view of the east, the better to see the dawning of a new season, but realizing everything in your life has been built to face other directions.
My parents have had their DNA analyzed. My mom’s came back pretty much consisting of just two places: Scandinavia and Great Britain. It’s the latter that I think about now, the land of standing stones, from Stonehenge to the Ring of Brogdor, great groupings of stone, arranged perfectly to tell stories, to honor the divine, to delineate new beginnings. I love the coupling- the solid, cold rock of our Earth entwined with the fiery, gaseous brilliance of our Sun. The burning motion of the sun, its dance and pilgrimage taking it all across our skies and horizons, yet it never fails to return to the specific, unmoving embrace of sacred stones. No matter how dark the winter, how low and north on the horizon the sun sometimes lurks, it always returns to the east, to the land of new beginnings, an opportunity for us to begin anew and greet the sun- and the Son- with renewed hope.
I live in a New England town that once was the final home to a towering glacier, the end of the Ice Age grinding its encroachment to a halt. The glacier died here, leaving behind ten thousand thousand rocks that it had chewed up and digested, leaving their remains all through this area, through my lower fields, through the quarry that’s operated right up the hill for over a hundred years. Five miles down the hill however, a mere two towns over, the soil holds nearly no rocks, such is a capricious nature of dead glaciers.
Usually I curse those rocks. I curse them with every pass of my plow and every dent in my shovel. But this year, I won’t curse them. This year, I’ll speak to them, and ask them to lead me to their king- a stone large enough to be called “boulder”. Ideally, it will be tall and thin, a manageably sized version of the standing stones of my ancestors. Once I find it, I’ll carve an appropriate symbol on its face the best I can, maybe a cross, maybe an alpha and omega. And then I’ll set it facing due east, a place I can return to over and over again, when everything seems stuck and unmoving. I will place my hands on that stone, already ancient even when mammoths roamed across New England, and remind myself that the sun always returns, Christ’s promises are true, and He is making all things new.
“Turn to the east,” I’ll whisper to myself. “The dawn is upon you.”