It is Christmas Eve, and instead of finding myself sprawled on a sofa, post-meal coffee in hand, surveying a few shredded remnants of wrapping paper, I am following two of my nephews—nine and seven—out to a freshly painted barn in rural Minnesota for nightly chores. Here, already, I use a word—“chores”—that I previously thought I understood, as any growing child would in any household, but have come to realize is far more nuanced than I expected.
We walk into the barn basement before my nephews turn to an older, worn door along the wall and push it open. Immediately, I hear chicken clunks and turkey gobbles as birds cheerfully (or fearfully) signal our arrival. The boys stroll undaunted through a swirl of feathers and poultry panic to straw-lined nest boxes and reach in, procuring one egg after another to stack in wire baskets. Once they’re satisfied, they start the introductions: “This is Red; he’s the only rooster, the rest are hens. Those little black ones are Silkies. They’re hard to catch, but I’m getting good at catching them!” They name another dozen chickens or so before we move on to the turkeys: “This is Speck, and Flake, and Turk, and Extreme Flight. Mom says we might butcher one soon.“ The biggest tom (Turk) has a budding beard on its chest, and we inspect it briefly before closing the coop behind us and starting back toward the house.
Among the fortunes I inherited upon marrying into my wife’s family was the opportunity to be uncle to three more nephews. At this stage of my life I am uncle to one niece and five nephews to be exact (and counting!), and I love each of them, but these three—sons of my wife’s eldest brother and his wife—are unique in that their daily routine involves a number of farm-like duties to accompany their studies, play, and rest. In warmer months, the boys lead us through their mother’s enormous and well-tended garden. Several square plots near the barn flourish with lettuce, pumpkins, zucchini, cabbage, and peppers; cornstalks tower overhead, tomatoes hang heavy and red from vines, and still more vegetables grow from every patch of soil. Their house’s cellar holds potatoes, onions, and garlic, while cucumbers and more pickle and preserve in canning jars lining the shelves. The boys even build small projects out of wood in their father’s shop.
When I visit my nephews, I often leave thinking about one of two things: amazement and wonder at their fearlessness, knowledge and skills, practicality, and unbridled joy, or I turn inward and reflect on my own youth, at the seeming lack of usefulness I developed while cultivating an interest in video games, films, or fantasy stories. Admittedly (as my good wife reminds me), I am not wholly without practical awareness; necessity has pushed me into experience with a number of practices I wouldn’t have voluntarily chosen, like household projects and repairs, vehicle maintenance, or insurance and certifications, to name a few. As much as each repetition of these adult duties bolsters my familiarity, the fact remains that I am, at heart, cautious, apprehensive, and yes, afraid when it comes to learning new skills or accepting new responsibilities.
When a man’s intellect has been his ally, as by the grace of God it has been mine my entire life, “not knowing” becomes a frost, a cold paralysis that begins at the core and spreads outward, the shame of vulnerability rather than the excitement at a chance to learn. I felt it the first time I had to pump my own gas, the first time I had a flat tire, and the first time I had a car accident. I felt it the first time I mowed the lawn, the first time I started a charcoal grill, and the first time I did my own laundry. I feel it when I have to park my car in downtown Minneapolis. I felt it just last week, before I assembled my daughter’s crib. I watch my nephews, not even a decade old, and they want to learn to shoot guns and to operate machines. They’ll probably be joining the men on family hunting trips by the time they’re teenagers—I didn’t even attempt hunting until twenty-four. They do things that have clear, recognizable value. Something is broken and needs fixing; when it runs, the job is done. In an instant, they can measure their work as good or as bad and move on accordingly.
My pursuits, generally speaking—writing, teaching, playing or listening to music—are often pursuits of second-guessing. I write a poem, a person enjoys it, but did they really understand it or consider it later? I teach a lesson or write an email to a student—they grasp the concept, or seem to, but how well? I play a piece on the piano or tuba and all the right notes are there, but what did I miss? Almost everything I do, I turn over many times in my mind after it’s finished, and that, I believe, is a result of how I spent my time right at the age I observe in my nephews.
Of course, neither of these personality traits is inherently good or inherently bad. As for all human beings, they will at times present challenges, and at times facilitate a much easier time with certain situations. When I spend time with my nephews, I know that I can learn from them, perhaps how to escape my overly analytical frame of mind or how to attempt new things and set aside a fear of mistakes. Already, my admiration for their parents’ self-sufficiency inspires me to examine the reliance in my own life and to reevaluate my capabilities.
My sister-in-law shared the story of how one of those turkeys came to be named “Extreme Flight” by the boys. One day, a turkey—then merely named “Flight”—escaped from the barn and flew to a nearby tree for a mid-afternoon roost. After a ladder placement and careful climb, she retrieved it from a branch—no harm, yes fowl. To the minds of those boys, and wonderful minds they are, “Flight” no longer seemed appropriate, maybe even a disservice to this bird’s epic journey. The only logical conclusion was to rename her with a fitting tribute.
I pray sometimes that I will be drawn back to this pure, unfettered mode of thought as a rest from the tornadic spin of synonyms, word plays, and puns that usually storm in my head. As I prepare to raise my own daughter, I know I’ll attempt to borrow a bit of everything that I’ve observed in the parental models I’ve known or do know. My baby girl will have uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents to teach her a wealth of things, she will teach them things too, and with luck, all will learn with even more acuity how little any of us knows and how numerous the glories are in God’s creation.
Salvaging a day off
February 8, 2016
Painting: Foggy Morning Trio--Wild Turkey
Artist: Larry Zach