It was an old farming road, not paved, and it bent away from the main highway and into marshy hay fields that bent and swished in the breeze. An old and unconvincing fence stood across the entrance to the road, keeping out people, but not time. The marsh lands had begun to take the road back, grasses and weeds encroached its edges, rising up along its center and asserting their quiet, persistent strength against human enterprise. About 75 yards down the road, off to the left, stood an empty threshing house, only its frame still standing. The concrete floor was swept clean by the breeze, as if at any moment it could be used once more to catch, cut, and cube bales of hay for a prosperous farm. But it too was abandoned, no longer an active or thriving place.
I had a few moments to gaze at this essentially empty scene, sitting as I was in an unmoving line of bumper to bumper traffic, impatiently waiting to thread through a two lane highway and into the business of the coming day. Cars stretched out endlessly in front of me and behind me, and I sat there frustrated by this inconvenience which had interrupted my progress, my productivity, my efficiency.
But with the interruption came the gift of this little abandoned road. As I looked at it, I imagined a time when it was heavily traveled by trucks and tractors and men whose livelihood depended upon the threshing that happened at its end. I imagined the farmer, employing the men and working beside them, all of them striving together to accomplish a task, to bring in the hay, and send it back out in a useful form. They must have worked very hard, sweating daily at a dirty and tedious task, but there no longer existed any trace of their efforts or struggles.
My fellow travelers on the highway were, like me, scurrying to work, to errands, to things that must be done. Some of us, no doubt, were bound for important destinations, such as hospitals to care for the ill or schools to teach the young or markets to deliver needed goods. Some were probably going shopping, or headed out to the beach, or on their way to the dentist. But all of the sudden, none of those destinations mattered. Because once upon a time, the threshing house at the end of this road mattered, too. Once upon a time, it represented a family's sustenance; now, it stands empty, abandoned, unimportant. Once, it was the center of a worker's day, the sum total of his productivity and purpose; now, it is useless and ignored.
But somewhere, there is a child whose father, or grandfather, or great-grandfather, drove down this road every single day, in order to bring back food to his family's table and keep them healthy. Somewhere, a child lives and breathes because of another person who traveled this road and worked in this threshing house each and every day. Behind the work and the struggle: a beating heart, a grasping hand, a dripping nose, a lilting voice. Because of the work and the struggle: generations roll forward, people meet, children grow. This is what lasts, what does not become abandoned or forgotten. This is what transcends utility and productivity.
Someday, all our efforts and struggles and projects and goals will be taken over by marshy wetlands and quiet, persistent weeds. Someday, none of what masquerades as important today will matter. But there are other things, things that do not tremor with utility or economy or productivity, things that seem lesser because they simply exist and don't do anything at all.
And as my car finally toiled away from the abandoned road, I saw with clarity that the business of the coming day was in many ways only a distraction, not to be confused with what really matters. So I will tend to those lesser things, the things that do not produce, that are not useful, and that will not pass away. I will tend to you, my love, and to the small sweaty hands that come from our tending of each other, and to the hearts that beat because ours beat together.
Happy Birthday, my own true love. I love you with all my heart, all my soul, all my strength, and all my breath.
* * *
This reflection was written 11 years ago, originally as an Anniversary Essay; converted to a Birthday Essay this year, and shared with my readers.
* * *