I stared out at the Gulf, a ripe nectarine in one hand, a bag of granola in the other, watching the playboy yachts chugging south toward the Keys and the half-drunk parasailers coming rapidly to their senses and silently vowing to never do it again.
It was an impossibly beautiful Saturday on Marco Island, and Alison and I were stealing our first sabbatical since either of us can remember. It’s not easy to plan a getaway when you have a family like ours. No sane person will take all the kids for more than five minutes. So it takes weeks of logistical planning, negotiating, wheedling, cajoling, and bartering to produce even just a couple days alone.
We didn’t say much to one another on the beach. The agenda for the trip was simple: eat, sleep, rest. There wasn’t much to do, much less say. No overly complicated scheduling to coordinate, no list of important projects to prioritize, no disciplinary items to consider. We spent much of the time just luxuriating in the white noise of wave against finely-milled sand, looking into each others’ eyes, and inhaling long, sweeping drags of the thick Florida beach air.
Every once in awhile we broke the blessed silence. “Would you rather be on the beach?” Alison asked, “or in the mountains, or in a nice European city?”
A sensible question I considered thoughtfully for two long beats before responding.
“I think my favorite place is in a hayfield” I said, thinking of the ones green as a ballfield, spangled with wildflowers, ringed by towering black walnut and red oak, and sitting beneath exceedingly blue skies. “That’s where I like to be.”
The memories from the prior Saturday were still vivid. We had spent it baling hay.
By any conventional measure making hay is work. There’s the connecting and disconnecting of several tons of heavy equipment. There’s the long hot ride, a dozen hours on that sizzling green furnace of a John Deere. There is the craning of neck and the constant monitoring of the clanking of equipment. There is cell reception, yes, but you’d never feel the vibration in your pocket or hear the chime with that racket going on. There’s the stress of the inevitable breakdown – the blown out tire or the shredding of a #40 roller chain – but we are getting better, more resourceful at fixing them. The push to get it all done is constant and unrelenting. Up and in before the Michigan weather changes, before the rain, before the dew, before my flight to Houston.
In business they call it Creative Destruction. The heavy steel blitzes through the tall grass, completely thrashing the field, exposing mice and snakes and hordes of grasshoppers. The red-winged blackbirds and the hawks swoop in by the opportunistic dozen to feast. A whole generation of men loses, a small sliver hits the jackpot. The hay dwellers are like the mom and pop retailers getting clobbered by Amazon. They are the cabbies to Uber, the classifieds to Craigslist, and the clowns to the motion picture shows. The cattle and the sheep, grazing on the other side of the pond, are oblivious to all the work going into their January supper in this the muggy heart of July. The birds get a tiny slice, but it’s the big ruminants who will eventually gorge on all the stock options, and fatten on all the disruption.
When the tractor work is finished and there are six or seven tons of hay on the ground the work starts in earnest. Every last ounce of that grass will slide several times along those thin Brazilian sisal strands through the newly calloused channels of our hands, forty pounds at a time, before making it safely into the barn. And it’s always a race to finish before nightfall. There is no time to sit around analyzing it, no time to mention that you haven’t eaten since 10:00 a.m., and no time to bemoan the sweat patterns on your shirt and pants that make it look as if you’ve just emerged, fully-clothed, from the fountains at Caesar’s. Hay making brings out that single, focused, glorious, and primitive mindset. Stop thinking. Just do it. Just get it off the wagon, Just get it up the old hay elevator, just lift and stack and sweat, one at time, until it’s all counted and heaped in the mow.
Throughout those final blurred hours, the kids will punch out, one by one, citing exhaustion. It will be down to just Alison and me to bring in the last load.
Finally she’ll drive out with me to the stubbly, barren field that now feels something like a nighttime stadium, blinking with the intermittent flash of fireflies in heat, as if the little buggers are snapping shots of some kind of Usain-Bolt-Remarkable. The words from the old hymn come to mind, they always do:
Abide with me, fast falls the eventide.
The darkness deepens. Lord with me abide!
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me!
The experts say that the band may have played that one as the Titanic went down and I appreciate Alison’s gesture, to abide with me despite the long odds, and to shine headlamps toward the last of the equipment so I can hitch it up and finally head in for the night.
After the baler has been safely tucked back into the shed, the tender knotter mechanisms tarped and secured from moisture and probing varmint, the diesel fumes finally dissipate and you’re left standing there in the barnyard, surrounded by the night sounds of crickets, a distant howling pooch, the public radio station still blasting in the workshop (hours ago tuned into Garrison Keillor and long since handed over to the BBC), and the thump-thumping of your heart through the sweat-soaked shirt telling you that, yes, you’re all kinds of alive.
Then we’ll collapse into kitchen chairs, eat like ravenous wolves, down quart-size jars of ice-cold lemonade like they were shotglasses, check Instagram and yawn, taking quiet inventory of all the muscles and tissues and circuitry and bones that once moved in symphony but now seem to function as independent contractors.
We’ll trudge upstairs and I’ll take a cursory shower but forget to brush my teeth. We’ll share a kiss and a prayer and I’ll tell Alison that it didn’t even feel like work, and that I’m immensely satisfied with how it all went down and how I can’t wait for second cutting.
And then, in those tiny silent moments just before dropping into a hay-induced coma, I’ll think about how nice it would be to just go somewhere quiet and sit on the beach.