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Misc: Baptism, Drought, Water and Heat

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Texas drought

I drive on Highway 87 south from Amarillo to Tulia. It is August in the Texas Panhandle and the sun feels close, as though nothing stands between that star and our planet. Along low spots in the road signs are posted, “Watch for rising water,” and “Beware of flash flooding.” The signs, those or ones like them, have always been posted on north Texas highways. Monsoon rains turn dry creek beds into roaring, if short-lived, rivers. And rains make highways impassable, a danger to the driver who refuses to turn back.

So important is water to the rite that it says it is ‘by water and the Holy Spirit she is to receive the gift of new life from God, who is love.’

But this summer and last, the signs have a mocking quality.  The grass is so dry it crunches underfoot, the sky so clear it holds the promise of nothing but heat.

I take my ninety-one year old aunt on a drive to the cemetery. Some of the bushes my grandmother, her mother, planted by the Musick graves have died.  I tell her I remember Ma-Maw and Da-Da out at the cemetery with buckets of water they hauled in their pickup for the plantings.

“Yes,” she says, smiling,  “I remember that, too.”

It has always been a struggle to keep crops and gardens alive in that hard land.

Amarillo Cemetery

I ask her if her nephew, Ken, is still farming the land she and my uncle farmed for so many years.

“Yes,” she says, the smile gone, “but it’s been several years since he’s had much of a crop.”

I drive back north to my sister and brother-in-law’s house. Once I leave paved road, the clouds of dust force me to slow down.

I turn into their place just as my brother-in-law drives up, the bed of his pickup filled with hay. He’s bought the hay at the co-op. He buys all their hay now. Without it, their cattle will go hungry.

Hay is the common crop of the panhandle. It grows in field after field, feed for the cattle that have been raised on that land since the first non-Native settlers built their dugouts and plastered them with straw and mud.

But not this season, nor the one before. The drought means that farmers and ranchers purchase hay as though it were dog food, something produced rather than grown, on their own lands by their own hands.

I wonder how our corruption of the earth, how our refusal to obey nature’s laws is being worked out in this time, in this place, on this land.

We sit on the porch at my sister and brother-in-law’s house. The porch faces east and we can watch the changing sky. We see dry lightning. We smell the sweet odor of rain. But not a drop falls.

On my way home, I stop for Mass in Dalhart. The church is filled with men in pressed Levis and ironed cotton shirts. They wear boots and Stetson hats. Their faces, necks and hands are leathery, what we, growing up, called a “farmer tan.”

They pray for rain.

My granddaughter, Bess, was baptized the week before I went to Texas. This water rite is filled with the remembrances of water: Water in the creation of the world, water in the creation after of a new order of Noah’s descendants, water in the creation of the Hebrew people, water in the creation of the church. So important is water to the rite that it says it is “by water and the Holy Spirit she is to receive the gift of new life from God, who is love.”

When I say good-bye to Bess before I leave, I can still smell the chrism in her hair.  I bury my face in her dark curls, inhaling that perfume mixed with her own infant scent.

As I drive, I remember the baptism.  I recall the stories in which the rite is rooted, of Noah and his family in the rising waters, of Moses and his people walking through the sea on dry land.  Those are stories of water as a destructive force, water threatening to overwhelm humanity.

God promises Noah never to destroy the world by flood.  The rainbow, scripture tells us, is a sign of that promise.

But a rainbow comes only after the rain.

As I drive the roads I have ridden since before my first memories, I wonder about that ancient promise.  There is no mention of drought in the story. Noah and his family wait for the waters to recede before they can build altars again, plant again, raise animals again.

In Texas, they are waiting for the rain to fall and the waters to rise. After decades of draining the Ogallala Aquifer to grow cotton, a wetland crop, in that dry land, they are waiting. A phrase from the scriptural account comes to me,  “But the earth was corrupt in the view of God and full of lawlessness.”

I wonder how our corruption of the earth, how our refusal to obey nature’s laws is being worked out in this time, in this place, on this land.

As I take leave of my aunt, one of the aides at the nursing home warns me about dark clouds in the north.  Watch out,” she says,  “looks like a storm.”  My aunt and I speak together, our voices one.  “Oh, I hope so,” we say,  “Oh, I hope so.”

– Melissa Musick

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