Three years ago, I wrote Farming Grace, a memoir on life, love, and farming. I turned it into my literary agent and waited.
No doors opened. Absolutely none. My agent’s dad got cancer. Anna died in a car accident. Struggling with grief, neither of us touched the manuscript for a year. Then in 2016, Scott made me leave my agent and go Amazon. My fiction writing took off. And my memoir sat in silence while I wrote salvation stories. In my novels, someone always comes to Jesus.
But Farming Grace came to nothing. I decided God wasn’t ready to do anything with this true story, but now several years later, I realize I wasn’t ready to do anything. And here’s why. This is my salvation story. Scott’s salvation story. And the story of returning to each other, our faith, and our farm. It’s personal. And hard to tell. But this year, by God’s grace, I will tell it.
I’ve decided to be brave and give you a sneak peek of the manuscript. Here is chapter one:
I once read a story of a starving little fox that found her way to a good man’s farm. Hungry, but scared to death, she refused to take the egg the good man left for her each day. After watching the good man for some time, the little fox finally began to taste the egg he offered. At first she would only take the egg out in the field after the good man walked away, but finally, day by day, the good man drew her closer and closer to his house, until one day in great trust, she accepted the egg from his hand.
I wasn’t a believer when I first read the fox story. But I grew up on a farm and knew about foxes: Egg thieves. Chicken eaters. Life stealers. This is how I lived as a young adult. Prowling the edges of grace, thieving it the way we all do before we finally accept it from God’s hand. But during these years, I longed to go home, to return to God and to the farm, a starving, little fox so hungry for grace. It would take me years, and ultimately a breakdown, to get me home to the farm.
But long before this came the cocaine. Cocaine brought me home once when I was a freshman away at college. Living alone in an apartment in Reno, Nevada, taking morning classes at the university and working nights in a bar/restaurant we’ll call Fast Jerry’s because I don’t want to actually name the bar/restaurant, not when I’m about to tell you how a nineteen-year-old girl was forced to do cocaine there. It wasn’t actually in the bar/restaurant where the cocaine coercion took place; it was in a nearby hotel room. With my boss.
This wasn’t the first time a man would force his will on me. Or the last. But it was the first time I ran home to the farm.
# # #
I come from a long line of strong women with men issues. My great-grandma Dell walked to California beside a covered wagon because of a no-good man. When Dell’s daddy died, her granddaddy ran off with all the family’s money, disappearing down to Texas for no good reason. Dell’s grandma and momma went to Texas looking for him but never found him. Thus the covered wagon of women determined to start over in California.
Granny Phillips, as everyone called Dell’s momma, Elizabeth, used to fish on the Sacramento River with her grandsons, shaking her fist at any man who dared to move in on her fishing hole. “She was a fierce little woman, a hundred pounds soaking wet,” the keeper of family secrets once told me. “Men didn’t mess with Granny and her grandsons on the river.”
And right then I dreamed of becoming Granny. Fishing with my grandsons on the river someday and shaking my fist at men without shame, without fear. Training up my boys and standing up to men who would run a woman off the river.
# # #
I tell my dear friend, Kay, who sits beside my hospital bed for three days while I sleep off my breakdown, “I really think a deeply buried anger at men drove me over this edge.”
The doctors say the breakdown was from physical exhaustion. “You’ve had seven kids. And four of these babies, all rambunctious boys, in just eight years—and you’re a mom in her forties now. Your body is drained. Dangerously depleted of potassium. Your brain shut off to save your life.” This from a kind, young doctor who smiles at me.
“But it doesn’t feel physical. It felt so spiritual and emotional,” I tell the doctor.
“I’m sure it did, but your real problem is physical. You need rest. And nourishing food. Let’s get you started on some vitamins. And can you hire help for around the house?”
Tears rolling down my cheeks, I laugh at the earnest young doctor. Hired help isn’t in my world, and I don’t want to talk about things I can’t afford. I can hardly afford this doctor. What I really want to address is how shattered I feel spiritually and emotionally in the wake of my breakdown. Three days of not knowing who I am, of falling apart and falling down and falling into an ambulance handcuffed because the sheriffs who accompanied the ambulance to our house were convinced I was on drugs. Crazy, wild drugs.
“Perhaps someone slipped her something at that conference,” one of the fire department paramedics suggested to my husband.
“It was a Christian conference,” Scott assured him.
The paramedic raised his eyebrows like my husband didn’t know poop from a pretzel. “Well, she’ll be tested for drugs at the hospital. This sure looks like drugs to us.”
Scott tells me the sheriff who handcuffed me before they stuck me in the ambulance was overweight. “He had a bald head and big round belly,” says Scott.
“Did I cuss him out too?” I ask. Because I cussed out everybody else. Out of my mind cussing coming from a woman who hasn’t cussed since she gave her life to Christ twelve years earlier. A woman who carries her Bible everywhere she goes and comes down hard on her teenagers for saying “holy cow” and “that sucks.”
“No, but you called the sheriff ‘Santa Claus’. I think you really hurt his feelings.”
I wish I could explain to that poor sheriff why I probably called him Santa Claus. Each Christmas Eve the big red fire trucks drive down our driveway with Santa on board. They come to distribute gifts to all the children in our rural neighborhood. It’s a delightful tradition and our family runs out to meet the trucks, our children dancing with great joy and expectation. These are not cheap, frilly gifts. One year our boys got scooters. All the farmers and ranchers donate to the cause and the country kids get really nice presents. I make cookies for the fire crew and hand them out to the guys while Santa passes out his presents. I’m sure when I saw those fire trucks accompanying the ambulance, I thought Santa was about to show up. Someone should have told the sheriff: “It’s not your belly, Lloyd, or your bald head. She’s just messed up right now and looking for Santa because she associates our big red trucks with him.”
In the ambulance, the paramedics removed the handcuffs and put me in cloth restraints, but I don’t remember it. Not the poor Santa Claus sheriff and not his handcuffs. I vaguely remember slapping my dad in the yard before the sheriffs and fire department arrived. Hard as I could across the face when he tried to calm me down. I was wearing my favorite jeans with holes in the knees, and after hitting my dad, I grabbed the holes and ripped the jeans off my body. This is probably when my husband and my friend Kay decided it was time to call the ambulance.
But getting to this place—this dark, roaring for grace, breakdown place—took twelve years of abandoning myself to babies and the evangelical church, and perhaps long before that, abandoning myself emotionally to men.
Babies, the church, and men are very much alike. They demand your love. Everyone has a dirty diaper. And it’s draining. Oh, so very draining.
# # #
But I want to finish my fox story. So, after coming to Jesus, Scott and I moved to our farm to an old almond orchard with falling down trees in Northern California at the upper end of the Sacramento Valley where fruit and nuts grow in abundance. My parents who lived nearby in the Sutter Buttes—the smallest mountain range in the world—had almonds, but we didn’t want to farm those. My brother, who owned the land beside us, was set on putting in walnuts. After sixteen years in the Army, Scott had become a high school history teacher. I was determined to be a writer, not a farmer, but the California land in my blood called my name—had been calling my name and calling me home since I’d left decades earlier for Reno, Nevada, and then on to marry my military man and follow him across a continent or two.
Once we cleared off the old almond trees in our front pasture, we put our horses out there. We’d just moved into the house we built, and our living room windows looked out over this field. Several weeks before Easter, a little red fox moved into the pasture with the horses. Early each morning while I sat and read my Bible, I watched her through the window making her rounds out there drinking out of the horse tank, and hunting squirrels under several old almond trees we’d left for shade for the horses. The fox appeared undernourished, and I remembered the fox story of the good man feeding the eggs, so after our annual Easter egg hunt that year, I gathered up all our leftover hard-boiled eggs and every day went out and dropped several near her den, a hole in the ground. Pretty soon she grew used to me and instead of running away when I stepped out onto our porch, she waited under the almond tree near her hole, watching me.
In the beginning, she wouldn’t touch the Easter eggs, but slowly they became her daily meal. At dawn one day about a month into this, with me now boiling eggs for her because I was out of Easter eggs, I watched her carry what I thought was a cottontail to her hole. Good for my little fox, I decided. She’s feeding herself now. I won’t have to keep making her eggs, though I’d gotten quite attached to feeding her.
Within a half an hour, I noticed her crossing the field again with another little rabbit in her mouth. Savoring my coffee, my Bible on my lap, I stared out the window at the little fox’s comings and goings.
Watch her closely, the Lord whispered to my heart. Again she trotted through the grass to a distant place and returned in a short while with another furry ball between her teeth. The sun now rose above the hills beyond our pasture, pinkening the sky, washing light and warmth over the dew-covered grass. To my utter astonishment, when she came out of the hole, trailing their mother were four little kits tumbling over each other.
What I thought had been bunnies were baby foxes.
She trusts you now, and she’s proving that trust by bringing her little ones under your care, the Lord expressed to me at that moment as I watched the foxes out the window. Just like you are learning to trust me. Learning that trust comes with time, and the hand that feeds you grace is tender.
At nineteen years old, I’d already learned the hands of men weren’t tender. I’d arrived in Reno on the tail of a painful breakup with my first honest to goodness boyfriend. I call him my first honest to goodness because I not only gave him my heart, I gave him my virginity, which seemed like all of me, and then he dumped me and slept with other girls. I was devastated. But we got back together after a month of him sowing his wild oats, a month of me sowing my wild tears, and we tried again because I loved him so much. Still, our relationship didn’t last, and just a few months after one turbulent year together, I was on my way to Reno alone, trying to outrun a broken heart. The Biggest Little City in the World, that’s what the sign downtown entering the strip of casinos that never closed in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada Mountains said about Reno in 1987. And that’s where I’d do my first line of cocaine.