The first morning of my second week in Eleuthera I woke up to the deep muscle fatigue that accompanies a life of manual labor. Nothing hurt exactly, but somehow still everything ached. I was struck full in the face with the realization that years of studying, pastoring and administrating had gradually eroded the strength that I had built up through a youth of chopping wood, hauling sound systems, and balancing pizzas on my shoulder. Where was the girl who had gotten in trouble for building tree houses in the woods alone? The girl who spent hours every summer day slamming her field hockey ball into an overturned picnic table to practice her shots? The girl who won the 4-H hammering contest every time? That girl had apparently long ago been buried by this woman, under massive piles of church bulletins, ordination papers, sermons, grants and weekly/monthly/quarterly progress reports. Pressure had weighed heavier and heavier on my shoulders, and so it was with relief that I realized my shoulders now hurt in a welcome way; a pain brought on not by wading through political tensions, but by honest physical exertion; a pain that indicated growth and strengthening rather than stress and weakening.
After a week in the garden, I had learned that when fruit trees and determined Bahamian weeds are involved, the work does not bear much resemblance to the kind of gardening that my grandmother did with yellow daffodils in her soft Pennsylvania dirt. Wrestling with this dusty, weed-filled soil bears more of a resemblance to her husband’s life on the farm. This gardening involves straining and grunting, rather than pruning and puttering. It does not leave me glistening, it leaves me filthy. Sharp barbs dig into my ankles, my hands, the backs of my knees, and anywhere else the weeds can strike at in their fight for survival. This work makes me filthy; it makes me tired; it makes me happy.
It should come as no surprise that my time with God in the garden is more of a struggle than a stroll. That is where God and I are at, and that is why we came here to draw apart and spend some time alone together. We have some hard work and some hard healing to do; this year we have seen my fractured elbow healed, and my wrecked car rebuilt – but now we have a tired mind, a wounded spirit, and a broken heart to deal with and no hospital or garage can help us with this restoration. This is the type of restoration that can only take place in a garden, the place where God first gave us life and purpose; the place where God first loved us and walked with us; the place where God first told us we would struggle but we would survive; and the place where God first told us that our faces would sweat and our hands would toil while we wrestled with thistles and thorns for our food.
I look down and take stock of my hard worked hands, a constant reminder of those verses. I count three swollen sore spots where burs from a few of the hundreds of nasty sharp nettles I have pulled off me stuck. A painful blister fills the gap between the two knuckles of one finger after an afternoon spent with a machete, fighting back the weeds that had outgrown my height. Red bruising covers the knuckles of my left hand where gale force winds slammed a metal door shut on my hand; leaving me wide eyed and gasping for breath for a full 30 minutes as I did my morning garden chores with a frozen bag of peas clutched in my hand. I again give thanks to God that I had been back to practicing Mumford & Sons songs on my guitar by that evening, rather than losing any fingers the way my sister had in a church door as a child. My nails harbor the kind of persistent dirt that clings stubbornly, and reappears almost instantly every time I think I have gotten them clean. Lastly, and only this afternoon acquired, scratches lace the back of my hands and my arms from my recent tussle with a roll of chicken wire.
For days I had been responding to a regular series of outcries – “Hannah! Hannah! The chickens are out!” This cry of alarm would send me time and again scurrying down the hill and past the laundry lines to hunt down the clever hens. The chickens became increasingly skilled at flying the coop – each time teaching another one to join them in their flight to freedom. Unfortunately for our valiant freedom fighters, however, my chicken soothing and capturing skills had kept pace with their brilliant escape plans. Yet, the feeling of living life constantly in a claymation chicken escapade film had grown wearisome. While part of me applauded their cleverness and thirst for freedom; a larger part of me knew this was not a place for free range chickens after a couple had been eaten by local potcakes, the island’s packs of wild dogs. I wished I could explain to the frustrated hens that we all have our struggles to endure, and their cross to bear was a bunch of well-intentioned humans who knew the hens would not last long outside their spacious yard.
So, unfortunately for my day off, as well as for the chickens’ short lived revolution, I spent the afternoon running chicken wire over their path to freedom; creating my own liberation from the constant chase. Enduring twenty chickens pecking at my feet, I finally left the field of battle victorious. A streak of blood ran across my forehead where the chicken wire had gouged me as we turned and tumbled until I pinned it down with one hand and lashed it to the fence with the other. Scratches criss crossed my hands and arms, but I had won. And with that victory, I had earned myself a sunset swim in the ocean, free from the fear that my sweet hens would find victory in escaping only to find themselves in the potcake’s jaws of defeat.
Satisfied that my hands have struggled with the earth enough for one week, I call Brenda and drive to her house. After scanning the horizon for shark fins, as is my somewhat ironic and equally useless habit, I dive off the rocks and into the wild blue sea. As the sun dips below the horizon, I find it fitting that my daily baptism should be just as turbulent as the labor for my daily bread.