I believe in our farm in northwestern Illinois, and in the river of generations that has flowed through our land. I believe in the bone-deep wisdom of my father, inherited from his father. I believe in the flour-white hands of my mother, in the way she turns grain into bread. I believe in the sentience of the earth, the potentiality of the fields and the promise of the spring rains. Most of all, I believe in belief, because the only thing that has sustained us is faith.
In a poem my father wrote, he writes of how he listened to my grandfather sing in church on Sundays. In a dry summer, he would ask my father to pray for rain. We farmers are inherently humbled by the weather. We cannot control it, and so we must bow down beneath it and pray. And the hands we pray with take on the shape of the life we live. I remember my grandfather’s hands: his knuckles swollen by arthritis, his nails blackened and broken like crushed obsidian. Now, I notice my father’s hands are beginning to look like his. I am embarrassed of mine. They are as smooth and white as porcelain, my fingers long and literary. I desire the hands of my fathers, hands I can join together when I pray for rain.
But some years, despite our prayers, the rains don’t come, as they didn’t last summer when I was traveling in India. I heard about the drought through the dry static of the telephone. It was one of the worst in the history of the state. I felt like it was my fault. I went to Buddhist temples and turned prayer wheels, hoping that the monsoons would migrate to Illinois. When I came home in August, the fields were yellowed like parchment. But we survived that drought, the way we have survived every drought.
Now, standing in the doorway of another summer, I am preparing to leave again, to spend five months working in Alaska. It has been a good spring: the rains have fallen long and deep. The fields are as green as the Ireland I imagine. The tributaries of my two families flowed out of Ireland and Germany, fleeing the potato famine and the holocaust. In America, these merged into the single river of my life. Looking upstream, I marvel at the hardships my family has endured. I wonder, how have we survived famine, holocaust, drought? And then I realize that, despite the poverties of food and love and rain, we have always been rich in faith. As I begin to sculpt my hands to fit the shape of my life, I continue to believe in the holy power of belief.
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