Running on Empty
August 12, 2011
Tonight as our hay barn is filled to the gills with hay bales brought in by wagon, I thought of this essay I wrote over seven years ago as I prepared myself for Nate’s departure to college out of state. Indeed, the barn did fill up again, and empty, and fill, and empty, just as the rhythms of life would predict. Three years later, our middle son Ben started college in 2007 the same weekend my brother-in-law died in a tragic fall from a ladder, so the emptying of Ben’s transition to college felt even more shattering than Nate’s. Now Nate is well launched in life, teaching in his third year in Tokyo, having weathered the earthquakes in both Japan and Thailand in the last few months along with the sudden death of two students in his international school community. Ben is graduated, relocated to inner city Denver for a year of service in Americorps, tutoring high schoolers who have so little chance to launch into life without that mentoring. He is seeing the emptiness of lives without nurture or purpose.
And our youngest, Lea, is ready to leave now, in only three days. We will make the trek once again to a midwest college, and watch her fly away with strong wings. We pray the emptiness we feel fills quickly, just as the barn fills so quickly in the bustle of a hay crew working hard together, sweating, joking, and singing. It is almost dark now and the barn lights are aglow with the activity of emptiness becoming full again.
I’ll long for the sounds of our children and their friends in the house, but am confident the rhythms of life will bring them back, someday with life partners and grandchildren who will need a little wing try-out of their own. The barn will be ready to welcome them back. So will my heart.
June 13, 2004
This 100+ year old hay barn has seen many hay harvests come and go over the years, and this is the time of year that the barn stands unused and silent for about 6 weeks, in between the last hay bale going out to feed the Haflingers before they are launched full time on pasture and the first new hay bales of the summer being brought in and stacked. It is cavernously empty, the stacks piled up to the cross beams reduced to mere grassy residue on the floor. Sometimes when I dig with my boot through the layers of old hay discarded on the barn floor, I imagine it is like an archaeological dig of decades of dried grasses–this layer from the 80s, this from the 50s, maybe this from the early 1900s.
There is nothing so vulnerable as an empty barn and that is precisely what keeps us going with growing hay, year after year, to fill it to capacity yet again, so it has the inner protection of several thousand bales to keep the winter northeast winds from pushing the structure down. But this old barn is cathedral-like in its empty enormity. The late evening sun filters through the slats as if they were stain glass windows. Sounds and songs reverberate. The beams that hold up the roof are graceful in their criss-crossed design and the trees sacrificed for this barn long ago were old growth firs, tall, sturdy and aged, and they continue to serve their purpose well.
In only a few short weeks, weather permitting, the hay wagons will pull alongside this old barn, and the hay crews will start the laborious process of refilling this empty space, one bale at a time, dust and pollen flying, and sweat dripping. Over the course of several hay cuttings, the barn will fill so full that walls and stair steps made of hay are all that can be seen. The only way to see the top of the hay pile is to climb in and up, clambering from bale to bale to reach the point where a bale can be grabbed and tossed down at feeding time.
Perhaps walking into our barn this weekend was particularly poignant as there is some emptying happening in our family life as well. I’ve watched our oldest child graduate from high school this past week, and am readying myself for his departure to college out of state in a few short weeks. All the “fullness” of his childhood is past, we’ve “fed” him everything that we could from ourselves and now his life is laid bare and open, vulnerable, ready to be filled with new adventure, new teaching, new people, fed not from home but from elsewhere. It is a bittersweet and anticipatory time. I have reminded him, no matter where he’ll be, there is always the knowledge that he carries those years of nurture from home inside him, steadying him and strengthening him against the storms of life. He can never truly be empty, as our old barn is at this moment. He will carry with him his memories, anchored by the love of his family, and filling with his growing faith in God. Such is the rich fullness of life, sweet as a new bounty of hay and far more everlasting.