The green, fertile, southern Missouri earth bent gently downward as soon as you walked out the side door of our farmhouse. Looking east I could take in our back yard, the field beyond, and — if I was early enough — a magnificent sunrise. At some arbitrary point our “back yard” stopped being our back yard and started being a field. I don’t recall the precise point of demarcation now. It is reasonable to conclude it was somewhere past Tasha’s house. There was probably also a gate involved, through which I would have to pass, although I don’t remember exactly. Tasha was our dog, by the way, a blue heeler, and she was a good dog.
Everything was good back then.
Stuff on our little farm felt whole. My life was idyllic. Or at least I didn’t know any better. It was 1985, and I know now that not everything was actually good back then. An earthquake in Mexico City killed 9,000 people that year. TWA Flight 847 was hijacked by Hezbollah. AIDS was spreading around the world, inspiring great fear and uncertainty. The Unabomber killed his first victim. A volcano erupted in Columbia and killed 25,000.
But I had just turned four and my whole world was pretty much contained on that farm. I was untroubled by what was happening outside our two hundred acres. The internet could not yet alert me to BREAKING NEWS. Our television received only three channels via a roof-mounted antenna. Our phone number had four digits for local calls. We were on a party line with three or four other neighbors. It was very difficult for news to get in or go out. My reality was miniscule. It spun on an axis of place and family and constancy. So on an early fall day I did what I always did.
I went outside to play.
The distance from the side door to the creek down in the bottom of the field seemed to me to be a half mile or so. I know now having returned as an adult that’s not true — it was a hundred yards at most. I would walk out our house with a ball and glove or simply my curiosity and play until it was time to eat or go to bed or do a chore. The creek was a favorite hangout. There were bugs and minnows and sometimes a rabbit or some migrating bird nearby to keep me company. My sister and I would pretend to be on a nature show and comment with great insight to our imaginary but captivated audience about the plight of a grasshopper or the magnificence of a butterfly.
I wasn’t with my sister that day, though. I remember that detail clearly. School was in session and she was in kindergarten and I was home alone. My mom was probably pressing a load of laundry through our old ringer washer or preparing our next meal. My dad was elsewhere on the farm, feeding animals or cleaning stalls. We did not own the farm. He ran it for a business man from Saint Louis, the closest major city two hours from our farm. They had no creeks or fields or skies like mine in Saint Louis.
Leaving the yard I waved good morning to Tasha and continued my unrushed descent to the creek. A worn path weaved its way through the tall grass and I set out for a day of adventure when I was suddenly stopped in my tracks. I grew completely still. It was like my senses dilated and I started taking in information that hadn’t been getting through before. My small world on its simple axis was enlarged all of a sudden. It startled me. I remember that feeling of being taken aback. But nothing shocking had happened. There was no predator on my path, no pain inside my body, and no alarm of danger going off.
Just the opposite.
The wind was blowing softly and the wild growth all around me swayed gently around my ankles and knees and hips. Back and forth, back and forth, for acres and acres and acres, swaying in unison. The breeze slipped past each blade, vibrating. It was like the field was playing me a song. I took in the melody of the natural world. The serenade swept past me and flowed toward the river which bordered our farm to the south. The creek was bubbling at the bottom of the hill, destined to spill into the river to my right, just beyond the distant tree line.
I looked above me to the sky — a perfect blue. Everything smelled clean and pure. A cluster of pine trees loomed spooky beyond the creek. I wouldn’t dare enter today. Not alone like this. My grand adventure assumed no such risks. I would stay on the safe side of the creek. The house side. The Tasha side. The familiar side.
The sky shone and the wind whispered and the creek gurgled over rocks and I realized I still had not budged. I was frozen in place, taking it all in, feeling something I had never felt before. My world got bigger in that instant. The field and the farm and the familiar wasn’t all there was. I knew that now, somehow, even though I hadn’t moved a muscle. Something had moved inside me.
There I stood, tender and small, without protection in the open field under open skies, completely alone. But I did not feel alone. I felt wrapped up in something strange. I felt immersed in something intimate. I couldn’t leave the moment and I did not want to. Whatever was singing in the wind was also humming in the current of the creek. Whoever was shining vividly from the sky was also lurking mysterious in the woods. Everything was flowing in the same direction, and it all seemed determined to invade my heart.
I was feeling the presence of God in a way which I had never felt the presence of God. God was in the curve of the grass and the bubbles of the creek and the heat of the sun. God was all around me. God was scary and comforting. God was present and elusive. God was inescapably imminent and simultaneously transcending all I knew. My mind couldn’t process it. I wasn’t thinking — I was simply being.
I understood it perfectly, but I couldn’t have explained it to anyone had they asked. I strain to do so adequately now, more than thirty-five years later, because while I understood it there are some things we understand that we simply cannot describe.
God was not a new idea, of course. I’d been to Sunday school and church and my parents had spoken of Him (I only knew God as “Him” back then). I believed in God, in whatever way a young child like I could.
Not that I could help it. The God of the Field was not someone who could be disbelieved in. God was Mystery. God was Wonder. We cannot disbelieve in mystery any more than we can disbelieve in love. It simply exists, and we spend our life wrestling around with it.
As if we are in control.
I was four. I was standing in a field. I was full of awe.
There are two Creation narratives in the Book of Genesis.
In Genesis 1, we read the familiar refrain of God creating something, and that something being good, and then there being morning and evening, and then a new day. On the new day, God creates something else, and God saw that it was good, and then there’s morning and evening again.
Then God makes mankind, and God declares that mankind should have provisions that come from the rest of creation, and then there’s a morning and an evening, and that makes the sixth day. Then chapter 1 concludes with the following:
“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”
So go our beginnings, quite often. So went mine. It was all very good. Very, very good. One of the things that was good about it, if you’re understanding how I felt in that field, is that I was completely exposed but not at all worried. This is an echo of the second creation story, found in Genesis 2. That one reads a little differently. It is a little more people-centric, and in it we are introduced to the Garden of Eden. God brings all that he created forth from the ground, including Adam. Then, from Adam, God brings to life beautiful Eve. Flesh of his flesh and bone of his bones, Adam revels in his partner, and the most interesting line concludes the story:
“Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.”
Obviously, by the time someone wrote this down it had proven to be a salient point. One the author felt was worth emphasizing. By then humanity was well schooled in the shame that often comes with vulnerability. But in the beginning, in the innocent times of our lives, we haven’t been trained in such things. We simply exist as we are, unbothered by how exposed we are.
That’s how I was that day. Everything was good. Tasha the Dog was good. The sun and the grass were good. The creek was good. Even the spooky woods I would not enter was good. All of it was good. I was out there, in full sight of God, small and naïve and unbothered.
I’ve been chasing that moment, and my capacity to simply exist in a moment like that, ever since. Like the author of Genesis, I point this all out now because I’ve since had that inherent goodness chipped away at by shame and posturing and protective shields of various kinds. I wish I could say I’ve always been as awake as I was in that field that morning.
For far too often I’ve instead been distracted. Or wrestling for control. Or just fast asleep to the Great Song that God was trying to sing in my soul.