Something I’ve learned over the course of my life is that everyone has his or her own way that they commune with God. Some people do so via playing music. Others paint. Some people pray while reading the Word. Me? There’s no place where I hear God more clearly than when I’m outside under the stars. And there’s no place where God comforts me more than when I’m beside a rushing creek.
I’ve had a lot of rough days lately. I am blessed to live maybe 150 yards from Big Walnut Creek. I’m close enough that I can hear it from my front step after a good rain. And so during the toughest of days, that’s where I go. I had one of those days a couple of weeks ago. As I walked and prayed, I kept thinking about my hopes and dreams.
I’ve never been much of a dreamer. Sure, there were simple things that I wanted to do in life. And absolutely, I’ve daydreamed about them. For instance, to this day, I still sit and daydream about autocrossing sports cars, something that I had the opportunity to taste a few years ago. But so far as things that I consistently looked forward to – things that I thought about for large portions of my life – there were only two. And I gave up one to get the other.
When I was young, I always assumed I was going to farm. I grew up on a working farm and had the immense blessing of being able to drive tractors by the time I was in elementary school. To this day, I can perfectly remember the whine that the old Oliver 1775 made when it idled, the smell of its dirt-covered interior, and the way the hydraulic brakes pushed back at my right foot if I stomped on them. Sometimes I just close my eyes and pretend I’m baling hay, spreading manure, or bushhoggin’ the pasture. Farming was my first dream.
Not many people in life have the opportunity to farm. I did. The problem is that I had another dream as well. And that dream was to raise a family. Farming, you see, is a lonely job. It’s not that the farm was miles from civilization. It was a 3-mile bike ride into the nearest town. I rode there a lot as a child. And it was only 10 miles to the next town, where there was shopping and entertainment. But farmers work alone. And the last thing I wanted to do after a long day of work was to then go home to an empty house. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve understood that my need for community is both real and strong. And equally strong was my desire to raise children.
I don’t remember when I first thought about having children. But I know that I was in junior high school when I began to realize that I had a gift of being able to relate well to young kids. By the time I got to college, my dream of raising children had already begun. My little brother is 7 years younger than me. I remember going home during summer break from college and just wanting to try to teach him things about cars and about what I was learning about my growing faith in Christ. I look back on those times and I realize that I was treating my little brother more like a future son.
I was never one to think about life goals, let alone write them down. But in retrospect, I realize that my goals after college were these: find a wife, have children, move to the farm – and in that order. And maybe those weren’t bad plans. Except that the woman that God gave me didn’t want to live on a farm. And so I gave up dream number one. At least mostly.
When I told my future wife that I would give up moving to the farm for her, I meant it. But a month after I was married, my grandpa – with whom my dad farmed – died suddenly, and everything changed. I’m not sure what happened to me when grandpa died, but immediately it felt like the farm was where I needed to be. And I had given that up for my wife. Thus there was tension.
The surprising thing is that, by the time my son was born, I was already beginning to love the unexpected direction of my life. My wife had been trying to convince me of the benefits of growing up in a small, safe community for a long time. Maybe it was finally sinking in, or maybe I was just changing. But I was growing more convinced that I would raise my children and live out my days in or around the little town where we’d settled. And I was okay with that. Sure, I still missed the farm, and yes, I still had a desire to live in the country. But by that time in my life, all I really wanted was a couple of acres and a tractor; I had my family, and that was far more important. Sure, visiting the farm was nostalgic, and I’d often leave sad. But there was nothing that I looked forward to more than being pounced on by my children when I walked through the front door after work.
By the time I got married, I had already been dreaming about having children for years. I had planned many family vacations in my mind. I had spent countless hours thinking about helping my future children with their homework, with their science fair projects, and with their 4-H animals. I had promised myself that I would be the most involved dad possible. What I didn’t realized is that babies are not like young children. And the early years of being a dad were far tougher (though no less joy-filled) than I expected. But by my son’s first birthday, I was at the point where I was considering becoming a stay-at-home dad. And then, two days after my daughter’s fourth birthday, when my son was just two, my wife left me – and took the second dream with her.
My earliest vacation memories are from Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The little town in the Smokies has remained a favorite vacation spot all my life. Over the many years that I visited, the things that I enjoyed there varied widely. The only things that I enjoyed in Gatlinburg as a child that I still enjoy today are the babbling creeks that run through the town. And as I think back to 2005, I realize that the reason I live in Sunbury is because of the creek.
The house that my former wife and I lived in was directly across the road from one of two spillways on the creek, and hearing that waterfall from my bedroom window was almost hypnotic. Despite originally finding the house, I remember coming up with several reasons why we shouldn’t buy it. But the allure of having a creek with a real waterfall not 50 yards from my front yard was just too great. I always loved my parents’ farm. And I do to this day. But the one thing that we never had was a creek. We had a pond. We had a woods. We had barns and a Civil War-era cemetery. But the farm was one creek away from being perfect.
My children are being raised 185 miles away from me by another man who they call their dad. It pains me to tears if I dare think about it for more than a minute. Meanwhile, my first dream – farming – would once again be an viable option, were it not in the opposite direction of my children – and coupled to the dream of a family that no longer exists. The greatest irony, perhaps, is that while my only dreams have been crushed, my former wife is now living them. She now lives on a tiny farm with her new husband and my children. And there’s even a creek – with a waterfall, no less.
Sometimes there are no answers to the questions I ask the Lord. I know that my life doesn’t consist of what I once had, nor is it limited to what I dreamt. But I can’t imagine what could be better. Maybe that’s my sin, and maybe that’s why I’m still in this place. Because the God of the universe can certainly provide all I’ve ever needed. And in truth, He not only does provide on a daily basis, but He amazes me in the creative ways that He does so. But even while I follow Him, I can’t help but mourn a little bit longer.