Sometimes in life, embracing the process is not an easy thing. Change does not come as naturally as we hope. New Year's resolutions are abandoned, we take a few steps backwards for every tiny step forward. We long for growth, we yearn to blossom into our most perfect selves only to find out that as long as we are in this body, in this lifetime, we will fall short. But just because we don't see the finished product of change doesn't mean that it's not happening. Let me share with you a lesson I learned this month during a cane grinding about growth, about the process of change and the force that affects change in my life.
Wake up with me at 5 am in a dewy and surprisingly cold Central Florida morning. Drive bleary eyed to a town that doesn't even show up on google maps, but definitely exists. Past the rows of strawberries, orange groves, and cow pastures. Down a dirt road called Reynolds Road, named after the family who still lives somewhere back there nestled in between the orange grove and cane field.
The sun's not up yet, but a handful of teenage boys are chopping wood by the headlights of their truck. The air smells like citrus trees and freshly cut grass and the coffee I'm holding to keep my hands warm.
Mr. Robert, the head of the family, a co-worker of my papa's back when they worked in phosphate mining, walks with determination and weathered strength toward his old tractor and brings it over toward the center of attention, the mill that's about to start the process of turning sugar cane into syrup.
Beside the mill theres a small shed that Mr. Robert's ancestors built in the late 1800s. It stood a crooked 5 and a half feet or so off the ground, making it difficult to do much without bumping your head on one of the handmade rafters. A very wise old man, named Alaskan Billy sat at the edge of the hut ready to take on his crucial job of stoking the fire for the next 12 hours with what my family calls "fat lighter." It's what we usually use to start the fire, it catches quickly and burns quickly, allowing the other logs to catch fire. This time, though, fat lighter is all that we'll be using to heat the old syrup kettle because it allows Alaskan Bill to have precise control over the temperature so the syrup doesn't burn.
At the mill, everyone works together to feed the stalks of sugar cane into the mouth of this old rusty beast that has been used by generations of Reynolds. The stalks have to be fed just right, my papa tells me, or else it'll choke up the grinder. Longer pieces are broken in half and the sweet smelling juice foams and spits as it pours out of the spout into a burlap covered barrel. Every 45 seconds the tallest in the bunch have to duck to avoid being hit by the arm attached to the tractor, which circles us about 5' 10'' above the ground.
I'm already struck by the beauty in the process of cane grinding, the hum of the tractor and the rhythm of the men stooping to gather the sugar cane in their arms, feeding it into the grinder, gathering the crush stalks at the other end and starting the process all over again. There's a happy energy in the air as people call the progress to one another in eager anticipation of the next phase.
At last, the first barrel is filled with the frothy green juice and the men work quickly to transfer it over into the next barrel where Mr. Robert takes a styrofoam cup and tests the flavor of his prized cane juice. Cups are passed around and we are all urged to try the sticky green juice that still has small flecks of pulp floating inside. It tasted strong and raw, fresh and as vibrant as earth. But the process wasn't finished yet, it was just beginning.
With the first phase compete, the raw juice now had hours to sit simmering on the fire, surrounded by people watching and patiently waiting for it to magically transform into the amber colored syrup. The youngest boys were sent back out to gather more cane for the second batch and Papa and I followed closely behind. Past the orange groves and the pond was a patch of tall sugar cane awaiting it's time to be pressed into juice.
Papa borrowed a machete and took me to the back of the field to pick me a piece to bring back home. He told me about how he used to ride on a mule around the mill instead of a tractor when he was a kid because he was the youngest in the family. He told me how his family used to let some of the juice crystallize into rock candy for the kids to enjoy and how most people don't even like cane syrup, but they still did the cane grinding every year because it was tradition. It was the day that everyone came together and worked from dawn until well past midnight, it was community.
He showed me how to use a machete to cut off the leaves and where the small seeds lie hidden on each joint of the stalk. He cut a small piece out of the inside of the cane to show me how it doubles as chewing gum and told me he used to chew on cane for hours.
As we walked back to the hut to continue watching the cane's transformation, I realized that no one has been quite the hero to me like my papa. He's quiet, but so wise, strong and gentle. He's a good man, respectable but humble. He's a good teacher and, although flawed, a beautiful portrait of many of the qualities of God the Father.
The next few hours consisted of constant scooping out of "trash" that rose to the kettle's surface and checking the temperature with two handmade thermometers to ensure it didn't burn.
Mr. Robert made this strainer himself, the most important tool for the job of cleaning out the juice. Everyone took turns straining the liquid and as I became increasingly impatient for the syrup to reach perfection they told me that as the fire continues to boil the liquid is refined. Although I felt like the trash would never finish rising to the surface, it was crucial to making a pure syrup. The old men watched the color carefully as it turned from shades of green to amber, and took turns wiping foam off the rim of the kettle, ringing out the scalding hot rag with their cracked and calloused hands.
Slowly and skeptically, I began to actually see the change in color that everyone had been telling me about. Hours of staring into a smoke-filled hut, smelling burning wood and watching trash be lifted out of the kettle, and then almost magically, change had happened. The syrup had reached 225 degrees and it was time. Excitement began to fill the tiny hut with people ready to help. Orders were given to kill the fire and a few guys grabbed a big bundle of the crushed stalks from earlier that morning and threw them over the covered fire.
Mr. Robert grabbed another one of his handmade tools that was being stored in the rafters of the hut. This one had a large pail attached to the end of a pole, allowing him to scoop the syrup out of the kettle and pour it into a container without being burned. The men placed a plank in between the container and the kettle to let any stray drops of syrup run back into the pot. Nothing here is wasted.
The syrup is strained through a cheese cloth and there my papa begins to fill bottles with the thick amber syrup. This batch filled at least two cases and finally, after 7 hours of looking after this process, we began to celebrate and enjoy the fruits of our labors.
Cane syrup is best enjoyed the moment it comes off the fire, while it still has a light and fruity flavor to it. The men had grilled Uncle John's Sausage and women made homemade biscuits and my papa taught me how to make a "syrup biscuit" just like he had done since he was a child. It was good. It was very good, but was it worth all that effort? I think our society would say "no" it wasn't worth all those people working all that time just for a bottle of syrup. But I say yes, it was absolutely worth it because you gain so much more than just a bottle of syrup through the process.
It taught me a very valuable and timely lesson about change, and I want to share it with you, so indulge me for a moment.
We're the sugar cane. We're the juice longing to become something greater. We're strained and raw and beautiful but we hold so much trash inside us. We aren't purified until the fire is lit underneath us and brings us to a boil. Sound like fun yet? Not for me! But that doesn't mean it's not good. And hours and hours and years and years go by and sometimes I feel like I'm never going to "get there" or become anything, but you know what? The longer I'm on the fire, boiling away, the more God is purifying me from all the crap inside. There are people all around us, being patiently attentive to us, watching and waiting and helping us. And here's the freeing part: there's nothing we can do to speed it up but that doesn't mean it's not worth it.
The slowness of the process just makes the finished product so much more valuable. The force of God, stoking that fire that makes things bubble up in your heart, the friends and family supporting you and loving you through the process, all makes you more of a treasure in the end. Give yourself up to the process and you will change, and it will be beautiful.
Who would've guessed a girl could learn that much about life in the middle of nowhere? :)