Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Morning at Wild Woman's

Long term volunteers at The Glenmary Farm are actually Americorps volunteers, which means we are entitled to an Americorps scholarship reward at the end of our time.  As part of the Americorps requirements, we had to submit what they called a "Great Story".  It is essentially an open reflection on an aspect of our time as an Americorps member that affected us or encapsulated our experience.  I chose to focus on an experience that sticks with many volunteers- their visit with Wild Woman.

A Morning at Wild Woman’s

“This is old Weasel Evans.  He used to be down at the Fly Branch, where we used to go for country music.  One day he asked me to dance so I picked him up, twirled him around, set him back down, and told him that’s the best I could do.  The Colonel’s wife told him ‘You need to find yourself a woman like that’ but he said “Oh no, she’s too wild for me!  She’d throw me through a barn door.’  And that’s how I became the Wild Woman of Trace Creek.”

Thus begins a morning with Edith “Wild Woman” Smith.  What ensues is the epitome of hospitality and love.  She has had a relationship with the Glenmary Farm since 1989/1990 and has welcomed over 11,000 first time visitors into her home (and quite a few return guests).  Each of those 11,000 experiences a morning filled with jokes, advice, pictures, cow feeding, laughter, and love. 

The day begins with the opportunity to feed her cows.  She keeps 5 or so cows on hand at a time specifically for volunteers.  The cows quickly make their way over once they see the hay being brought out and begin to crowd the fence, jockeying for position as the volunteers tear off pieces of the thistle to dangle in front of them.  Only the most courageous of volunteers dare to feed them with their mouths, chancing an encounter with the long, leathery tongues of the bovines. 

Once inside her home, volunteers read a series of jokes and funny articles collected by Wild Woman over the years.  They are a gathering of what we might recognize as those annoying spam mail chain letters that our older relatives insist on clogging our inboxes with to our chagrin.  Our gut reaction is to banish things like these to our trash bin.  But the beauty of a morning at Wild Woman’s is the ability to transform the commonplace or mundane into a communal experience filled with joy.  Of course, it is Wild Woman herself who helps the transformation through her presence and attitude.  She sits in a chair as the volunteers read off her stories and jokes and laughs right alongside them.  Her anticipatory giggles before an especially funny line or her outright guffawing at a volunteer’s reaction punctuate the proceedings. 

At first, it can be difficult for volunteers to understand why we bring them to visit Wild Woman.  They question where this falls in the spectrum of service and wonder whether, despite the fact that she is a wonderful person, time might be better spent out building houses for people.  To be fair, it can be difficult to grasp the abstract concept of ministry of presence for some and while it is fundamental to the work that the Farm does, it is often the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place for volunteers.  Giving of one’s self, and the vulnerability that comes with that means that a strong connection can be formed with those we serve.  She teaches this through her own example and, in a magnanimous gesture, allows those who visit to do the same for her.  The idea that service can be done as much in the living room of a 90 year old woman as it can be at a construction site is an invaluable one.  She imparts the critical lesson that service is attitude as much as it is action on every volunteer she meets.  She sees every person as an opportunity to encounter, to reach out and touch a life and hopefully be affected in return.  This is a true gospel of Love, where her heart is always open to the heart of those she meets and the world is always seen through those Love-tinted glasses.  She is a paradigm for service and so she becomes the perfect frame for the volunteers’ week of service at The Farm, which is reason enough to visit her. 

It’s amazing to think that she has heard the same jokes hundreds and hundreds of times before because she is always so enthusiastic.  Every time seems like the first time she has heard them because she takes so much joy in the joy of others.  The enjoyment of the volunteers in turn becomes her own.  And that is the wonderful life-giving cycle of a morning at Wild Woman’s.  She and the volunteers engage in this dance of reciprocating joy.  The volunteers get so much from sitting and talking with her and she gets so much energy from talking with the volunteers.  Maybe that’s why some volunteers have a hard time associating that morning with service.  It all comes so easily and is a source of such joy that it doesn’t feel like service at all.  At the end of it, both sides have cups that runneth over.  She often says “Half of the time I’ve got patches on my britches, but who can say they have the opportunity to meet people as beautiful and as wonderful as all of you?”  I and the other 11,000 volunteers can certainly say the same about our time with her.

She became something of a grandmother figure during my time at The Farm.  She sees the Farm as a part of her family and takes the Farm Managers under her wing.  She would call to warn us of any bad weather headed our way or any particularly good deals at the local grocery stores.  Being in a rural setting far from home, it was reassuring to know someone was always looking out for you.  She invited us over countless of times to watch the reality show du jour- whether it was Survivor, Big Brother, or Amazing Race- always followed by marveling at the various concoctions on The Food Network.  But the moments I enjoyed the most were those spent on her porch just “shootin’ the bull” as she would say.  It was in these moments I could really focus and absorb the tremendous gift that she represents.  The love in her eyes and heart radiated out from her as she told us about her childhood or past Farm groups, weaving us into the beautiful tapestry that is her extraordinary life.  Those moments resonate with me as I look back on my year of Americorps service because they represent the essence of service.  It is the extension of heart and hand to a stranger until they become family. 

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