The Yoke and the Fiddle

It was Uncle Frank’s farm that served as a lab for my Dad’s “ag” courses in high school.

Dad raised popcorn and stored it in Frank’s barn.

As Dad told the story of his popcorn he grinned because of a little problem with the corn.

I don’t think it ever actually popped.


I remember the farm very well, having visited there as a child.

I can see Uncle Frank, a tall, white-haired man, flannel shirt and ruddy face,

and the physical look of a man who had worked hard all his life.


Aunt Sadie’s wispy build as a young woman had turned wiry with age,

small in stature, but mighty in will.

And brimming with hospitality.

Together, they were a touch of American Gothic in Vestal Center, New York.


I don’t remember much about their house, except it was white and modest.

When I asked my Dad what he recalled about the house,

he said he remembered being in the living room only once in his life;

he said the kitchen is where family and friends gathered.

When you visited, you went to the back door and sat in the kitchen, near the wood stove.


I remember the living room, especially the lamps:

converted oil lamps, crystal and stained glass, now wired for electricity.

I also remember the old furniture, far more quaint than comfortable.

And I think of the house as dark and quiet inside.


After Uncle Frank’s death, Aunt Sadie was moved off the farm.

I use the passive voice, because I don’t know if moving was her idea.

I remember no family discussions or negotiations about that.

All I remember was a new two bedroom ranch house not far from the farm.

When I was home from college, my Dad would suggest I call Aunt Sadie

and invite myself for a visit.

After I told her who I was on the phone, she’d inevitably say,

“Well, I don’t know who you are, but I sure enjoy company, so come on over.”


I’d appear at her door, tell her who I was, visit for awhile,

and then, as I was about to leave, she’d say,

“Well, I don’t know who you are, but I enjoyed our visit.”

Needless to say, I wasn’t in her will.


I have a moment of life on that farm imprinted in my memory:

Uncle Frank standing by a rail fence with his two workhorses, King and Queen.

Those horses never moved—

and they were too old to carry a young boy even on a short ride.


I’d love to travel that two-lane road back to Vestal Center and revisit that farm.

That yearning first occurred to me when I was living on a quarter acre suburban lot,

longing for a retreat to a place where the acreage encompassed rolling pasture land.

I wanted to move back to a time when you’d eat supper in the kitchen,

and after a leisurely meal, you’d move to the front porch and rock awhile

and watch the sun go down.

I’d covet listening to crickets and birds instead of “Wheel of Fortune” on the tube.


I’d trade a “studio full of fabulous prizes” for a porch with a swing.


I know it must seem strange to be nostalgic for a time I’ve never lived.

But that place of beauty and quiet symbolizes (not stereotypes, but symbolizes)

the seemingly simpler life of previous generations.

If life were simpler then, it was because there were so many fewer choices.

Work and play occurred from sunrise to sunset within your own fences.

You might find some of your daily bread at the general store,

and pick up your mail there, too, but your major shopping was by catalog

and your civic center was the church.


It was an era when tough physical labor day-by-day meant

you didn’t have to join a health or buy a machine to help you exercise.

Uncle Frank never would have needed a Cybex or NordicTrak.

He didn’t have to jog for a half-hour every day.


On the other hand, lest I romanticize life on that Vestal Center farm,

I wouldn’t trade our modern bathroom for that two seat out house just up the hill

from Frank and Sadie’s back porch.

And I wouldn’t look forward to going out to the back yard pump

for water for my morning coffee, especially on a frigid winter’s day.

And I wouldn’t enjoy the race to the tub to use the bath water first,

while second and third place contestants followed in the same water.

Then the laundry was dumped into the leftover water,

the dirtiest of the load coming last.

(But I once talked with a woman who was raised on a North Carolina farm,

who said everybody smelled funny, so no one really noticed.)


* * * * *


Well, follow me back down that country road in Vestal Center as I return

to Frank and Sadie’s farmhouse for a nostalgic visit, not as a boy now,

but as a sentimental grandnephew a generation or so later.


I drive into the driveway, convincing myself that this is the place,

though it’s been remodeled some over the years since my last visit.

The drive is paved now.

A garage has been built since Sadie moved away;

it partially obscures the view of the old barn.

A couple of newspapers in the mailbox signal that no one is home,

and hasn’t been home awhile. So...

I won’t get to go inside the house, but it’s probably so different now,

little would be familiar to me.

Yet, I can park the car in the drive and look around the yard

to see if anything prompts a memory or two.

With no one at home, I need not wait for an invitation.


I go around to the back porch and notice the old pump is gone.

There’s a little deck there now.


The barn remains, though.

I pretend King and Queen are still standing by the fence.

I walk to the barn, its old doors hanging on rusty hinges.

The wood is cracked and anything more than a delicate pull

might bring the doors down on me.

A quick look around as I pull open the door and a quick murmur—

”Forgive me my trespassing, but I want to see this place.”


Actually, I could look between any two boards in the barn’s walls

and see what I needed to see, but the door is open now, so I enter,

memory inviting me in.


Except for the dirt and dust and broken slats on the floor,

the place is pretty much empty now.

The musty odor has been locked inside for years.

My eyes adjust to the darkness, my lungs adjust to the dust,

and my conscience adjusts to my lack of an invitation to tour someone else’s property.


I see a ladder leading up to the upper loft. It looks surprisingly sturdy.

(But sturdy enough to hold my two hundred pounds?) Let’s see.

I climb carefully, rung by rung.

And as I test each step, I can imagine a headline in the Vestal News,

“Retired Pastor Trespasses; Pays in Fatal Fall From Local Hay Loft.”


I survive the climb and step onto the second floor and I survey the loft,

seeing there’s almost as much floor area as the ground level,

but the loft is almost swept clean, as if it’s expecting company.

Daylight flows through a loft window with a brilliant shaft of light

shooting through the dusty air onto the planked floor,

as if Spielberg had directed the scene.

One dazzling space that brings an otherwise dark barn to life.


And then, I hear voices! They’re back!

My heart leaps into my throat, my adrenalin pumps through my guilt-ridden system.

I could run and hide, but they’d have my car.

So I decide I’ll laugh when they find me--an innocent, embarrassed laugh,

and then I’ll introduce myself, putting the emphasis on the REVEREND part.

As I glance behind in a panic, I realize they’re laughing, and I feel some relief.

I’m not sure they’ve entered the barn down below.

No one has come up the ladder behind me, but the voices are getting louder

and it seems that they’re not so much under the floor beneath me,

as on the floor with me.. .

as if they’ve been beamed into the loft with me on that shaft of light.


The room is suddenly filled with denim and gingham;

oil lamps are placed around the walls and someone remarks

on how good a job Frank has done cleaning up the place.

Someone asks about the new folks a couple miles down the road—

have they been invited?

No, they don’t have much use for barn dances. They’re Methodists.


Amid the walls filled with farm tools and implements,

the warm light of the lanterns and the warm laughter

of friends and family gathered close,

a fiddler applies some rosin to his bow and stamps out a two-step rhythm,

and plays the first tune of the evening.

A guitar and bass join in and a caller invites the squares to the floor,

a few kids dragged from the reluctant periphery to complete a couple here or there.

I hear a simple tune with really silly lyrics no one else is hearing.


Dancers whoop and holler as partners are swung and do-si-dos are do-si-doed

(or done-saw-done?)

Some slower tunes in waltz time break the squares in quarters,

and couples dance close and catch their breath.


The bass fiddle keeps time, the guitar adds a gentle rhythm,

and the fiddle cries for awhile, singing its ballad.


Then a quick change of tempo; the guitar is exchanged for a banjo,

and the music brings hands together to clap the time and feet clog around the loft floor, temporarily free of the cares of the week and full of celebration.


I stand there, watching and listening with delight,

and remembering the fiddle that we found in the attic of my childhood home,

the only musical instrument in our house that wasn’t rented for a child’s lessons.

My mother said it belonged to her grandfather, and he used to play it at barn dances.


(I wonder if Joseph Campbell had anything to say about this kind of mythology—

simple times in rural places, country folk who worked close to the land,

who risked in planting the seeds, nurturing the plants, harvesting the crops—

people who cannot help but be anxious about tomorrow,

 when it has rained too much for too long, or not at all.)


I wonder if these folks can pass their dances on to their kids?

Are canning and quilting and barn raising still part of this ethos?

As the family farm dies, will its music fade, too,

to be replaced by a technological revolution

of electric instruments and electronic keyboards,

a grand new “opry” on its own cable network?


But here in this imagined country corner, acoustic music is still played

on stringed instruments akin to lute and harp and Biblical joyful noises,

providing a rural soundtrack to that farm community’s joy and pain,

from its richest harvest to the killing drought,

from the rankest chores to the blue ribbon prize at the county fair.


The dance goes on.

No one pays me any mind.

My eye is drawn to an ancient symbol of agricultural labor,

hanging on the wall behind the band.

It’s a yoke, designed to harvest two ox-power, and a reminder of pre-tractor days.

For these dancing farm families,

the yoke symbolizes not so much past plowing, but present burden,

the weight of the farm itself.

It is the yoke of the farm that pulls the family together,

that holds them together.

The yoke is their common burden and shared strength,

from gathering the morning’s eggs to paying the bills just before bedtime.

This simple life is a hard life, and Saturday night the dance is their respite,

as if the Sabbath began at sunset.


Beyond the reels and the two-steps and the nonsense lyrics,

their music begins to tell stories,

singing a blues-like lament that provides a cathartic escape,

with psalm-like tales of praise and blessing, abandonment and exhaustion.


I can let them go now.

The music is fading; the dancers saying good night.

I stand alone in the empty barn, once someone’s storehouse or stock house,

now abandoned to dust and memory, another family farm bequeathed to subdivision.



My visit comes to an end as I back down the ladder, carefully,

again step-by-measured-step,

and close the old door behind me.

Frank and Sadie would be surprised how much I miss them,

how much I enjoyed their home,

and how much I wish I could have ridden King or Queen along the path

beyond my imagination.

As I drive away, I take home the image of the yoke and its burden,

and the fiddle and its liberation.

I need not turn on the radio, for I can still hear the sound of spirited music,

dancing feet, and light hearts.



The yoke.

Jesus spoke of it as a symbol for the heavy load of Pharisaic laws

that weighed a people down.

But as the gentle teacher who fulfills the law,

he offers an easier yoke to bear,

“acting side by side with sinners to bring them into fellowship with himself.”

(Preaching from the Lectionary, Gerald Sloyan)


I used the yoke in my story to symbolize the backbreaking burden of the farm.

But you may have your own heavy yoke to bear.

Sorrow, or guilt; anxiety or a difficult decision to make.

Perhaps it’s a laborious or boring job;

or an empty retirement.

Maybe a persistent illness or an addiction.

Maybe you identified with the Apostle Paul’s struggle

over knowing the right but living the wrong.

Whatever negative image we apply to the burdensome yoke,

Jesus offers respite and rest for the weary and the heavily burdened.

His is a gentle rabbi’s call to a Sabbath when it is most needed.

An early Christian writing says it well:

“If you can bear the Lord’s full yoke you will be perfect.

But if you cannot, then do what you can.”               (Didachē 6:2)

Side by side, together, we work and rest.

Jesus knew (knows) life has its hardships, and always will, but…

he’s willing to lift the yoke and hang it on the wall for awhile,

offering a time of rest.

Let him.


And a brief word about the fiddle…

A violin can sound a lament, crying and weeping the depths of human pain.

But when that same instrument is transformed into a fiddle,

it sings a light-hearted doxology that moves even tired feet to dance.

Perhaps it merely helps us forget our burdens for awhile.

Or, maybe the music soothes, adjusts the heartbeat to a rhythm we can live with.


Just yesterday, I ran across this verse from the 19th century poet William Morris.

He places the music scene, not in a barn, but an inn.

But lo, the old inn, and the lights and the fire,

and the fiddler’s old tune and the shuffling of feet;

Soon for us all shall be quiet and rest and desire,

and tomorrow’s uprising to deeds shall be sweet.


The respite, the rest, the Sabbath may be temporary,

but the break does, you see, refresh our spirits, and renew our energy for life’s labors and loves.

(Like a pastor’s sabbatical, a quiet Lord’s Day, or a prayer breathed amid daily busy-ness.)

The Lord of the Dance calls the tune, and it is one of redemption, rest, and re-creation.

Listen for his music, join in his rhythm.