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Been Thinkin' About...Hay field rites

The solstice sun is bright, the air, heavy. Squinting against sweat, the world turns briefly gray, sepia, then fades back to color. Heat and exertion do strange things. "Too bad we can't bale hay in the winter," I can hear my mom saying, wiping sweat and shifting her dark sunglasses. She was a small, tough, beautiful woman who thought nothing of dragging 60-pound bales of alfalfa through the field, driving trailer-loads of hay across the rolling Illinois prairies, and making sure supper was on the table. She taught me how to work, how to push beyond limits, leaving comfort and ego behind. When I was a soft, pale, flabby kid on the cusp of adolescence, she pushed me.


The worn-out hay wagon creaked beneath the weight of too many bales as the tractor pulled over one-too-many ruts in the field. Poorly stacked bales shifted precariously, plunging forward with me on them. Fortunately, the tractor stopped. Nobody said farm work was safe. Just the same, hay season was special magic for me. Town kids, public school kids, can keep their teamwork and their track meets and special uniforms. I'll take the hay fields with all the sweat and dust and impractical danger as the sun beats down, hour after hour. The gritty rawness reaches far beyond acceptability.


"Wear a long-sleeved shirt so you won't sunburn!" Boyhood rites of passage don't make sense to polite, androgynous society, to the experts or the egg heads or the overly protective mothers. Hay season was a time of worn work jeans and cowboy boots, men in sleeveless shirts and open shirts and no shirts at all, all braced against the towering sun and the weight of bale after endless bale. To be strong enough to pick up a hay bale and toss it onto the wagon? That's like crack cocaine to a boy longing to join the ranks of manhood, to be accepted, to be seen, to be respected. I worked hard those long summers, working to be able to buck a bale, to be as strong as a man. Unknown to me at that time, I was never alone. Agrarian societies have — for as long as there have been agrarian societies — measured manhood by feats of strength.


I am sitting in front of a new computer, late autumn, 1990. I was always bookish, always sensitive. The computer was fancy back in those days and it had a handful of games, inserted via floppy disk. I was obsessed, as only 12-year-old boys can be. Competitive, and confident that with the right combination of arrow keys, I could be a Jump Jet champion, even as a pixelated and grinning pink skull bounced into my equally pixelated fighter jet on level 10 and the game restarted. "I don't know how he can spend so many hours on that thing." The words drift over the remains of a Thanksgiving meal, the tone disdainful. Competition takes many forms and worlds forever collide, me never quite in one world, never quite in the other. No wonder I have a love of crossroads.


"What are you training for?" I spend many hours in the gym. Still, the question is awkward. Others train for competitions, or particular events, like holiday 5Ks. I assume they also grew up with teams and uniforms and track meets. It's all alien to me and my deer-in-the-headlights stare leads others (I'm sure) to conclude I'm just not quite right in the head. "What am I training for? Life, war, or dessert." Everything is a joke with me because a joke is easier than the truth. Easier than attempting to voice the thousand images that flash through my mind, the heat of the fields, the never-ending quest, the journey to — and into — manhood, the inexorable fight against the great wheel of time, the drive to create, to become more than I am.


The 80-pound tractor tire looks immovable sitting there on the urban sidewalk, blocking foot traffic outside the gym. The clock is ticking. Deep squat, hands beneath the tread, push with the hips; the tire flips. Repeat, again and again. Keep your breathing under control, Josh. Focus. Ignore the pain. Ignore the heat. Ignore the heart rate. Peripheral vision fades. I holler when I lift. It helps control the breathing. The elderly couple making their way to the salon look around, startled. The more polite facets of my brain want to break away, to rush over, calm them, let them know I'm not like this all the time, I'm not really angry. But there is a time and place for anger, for strength, for overwhelming force of will, however fleeting. And there is beauty in raw power far removed from polite, tepid society. Yin and yang, sun and moon, light and shadow, an eternal, ancient dance.


And tonight, against the heat of the summer solstice, a waning strawberry moon rules over the eastern forests, whispering the cool dark, the mysteries of life and the unknown, the passionate rising of the blood. I am again called out beneath the pale light to memories intense and impossible to forget. Lessons long-past, but never really far away. Again, I smell the alfalfa, and remember the old hay field rites beneath an eternal summer sun.

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