They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but for my new book that is coming out this June, I disagree. What’s on the front of my second memoir pretty much sums up what’s on the pages inside. Not because the little girl in my arms is cute and the farmhouse and barns behind it are so picturesque… but because the story of that picture is kinda like the story that is shared in the book. It was a roller-coaster ride with enthusiastic high fives and disappointing loss, the testing of our faith and the realization that everything would be okay, even when it wasn’t... much like the fifteen-year-plus story that has unfolded at our farm since we bought it in 1999. But for the photo, all those things happened in less than twelve hours.
It was just before sunset last summer, and we were in the back field behind our farmhouse. Me and Indy, the publisher’s art director, a few friends, and our photographer buddy Bryan Allen. BA, as his friends call him, is a world-class cameraman. Whether it’s still photography of someone’s wedding day or a major sporting event being shot on video, BA will capture what you’re looking for and then some.
Since it was May and the days were getting longer, and hotter, I told BA he might have a window of a half hour or so of really good light in the back field as the sun’s setting, but unfortunately our three-year-old daughter Indiana’s window is probably gonna be much shorter. “A few minutes, max” I told him, “maybe only a few seconds.” And that’s exactly what happened. Around 7:30 p.m. we found a spot in the tall grass just over the shoulder of the fenced-in cemetery and I picked her up on my shoulders as someone told Indy to smile. As the camera aperture clicked, Indy smiled great big for a moment or two—then proceeded to fall apart.
Out of the corner of her eye, she had seen the small wooden swing hanging from a tree in the cemetery where her mama is buried and was ready to head there and swing like we did most evenings. “Swing,” she said, and tears started streaming down her face. I pulled her down into my arms and tried to console her, but she wasn’t having it. The shoot was over. At least for her it was.
As I held her, BA was scrolling through the dozen or so pics he’d snapped in those few seconds with his camera. “Check this out!” he said, as he held the back of his Canon 5D up so Kristen from HarperCollins and the others could see. And then he walked over and showed it to me also. Somehow he’d managed to get the absolute perfect picture in only a matter of seconds. “Beautiful, BA,” I said. “I’m gonna take her to swing for a while. Maybe we could try taking a few more shots there.”
And so I pushed her on the little green swing for twenty minutes or so and then put her in her wagon and started back toward the house. BA kept shooting through it all and Indy didn’t seem to mind. But I could tell, the “magic” had probably already happened and though he was taking hundreds, maybe thousands of more pics, we already had the one that was gonna be the cover of the book.
About halfway back to the house, I sat down by Indiana in the wagon and we talked and played for a few minutes in the high grass as BA changed batteries and cards in his camera. He took a few more pics and then we finished our walk home and were soon in the kitchen with Indy in her high chair eating grapes and I was doing some dishes that had piled up in the sink from the dinner we had all enjoyed together before walking out into the field to do the photo shoot.
By then the sun was down behind the trees and it was nearly dark. I could see a few of the guys still standing in the field, walking around where we had last shot—looking for something. My cousin, and our manager, Aaron, came through the back door with a strange look on his face.
“What’s wrong?” I said. “Well . . . ,” he answered. “It seems that when we changed cards out in the field, the first card dropped in the grass and we can’t find it.” I looked out the window again. Realizing that the grass hadn’t been mowed in weeks and it wouldn’t be long before it would be cut for hay.
“Is that the one with the—” I started to ask.“Yep.” Aaron answered. Indiana was watching the whole conversation and loving it I think.
“More...,” she said as she held her little plastic bowl up for me to refill with grapes. An hour later, Indy was in her crib asleep and I had joined the rest of the guys in the field with flashlights and iPhone lights, looking for a one-inch-by-one-inch piece of black plastic in fifty acres of foot-and- a-half tall grass. This is impossible, I thought. Like finding a needle in a thousand haystacks.
“We’re never gonna find this, are we?” I asked no one in particular. “Nope,” BA answered.
“Okay, so what’s our plan B?” I said, knowing that we hadn’t really thought to make one.
“Well...,” he answered, “we can look through all the other pics I took and see if there’s one that we like as much or better...” He was shaking his head. “I already know the answer to that.”
“Or...,” he continued. “I guess we can set up another day to get together and shoot some more.” I knew that would be tough to do anytime soon since Bryan lives in Knoxville and HarperCollins had a deadline for the cover. I had a few more months to work on the writing of the book—what it was gonna say. But what it was gonna look like—they needed for a big sales meeting in just a few days.
We stayed out there in the pitch black looking for another half hour or so, then headed in to the house. Ready to call it a night. “We can look again in the morning,” I said, knowing it was hopeless.
Aaron, BA, and me, along with my wife’s best friend Julie, stayed up for a long time talking and laughing in the living room about how ridiculous it was that we had lost the card. We’d shot countless album covers and filmed hundreds of hours of TV shows and films together... not to mention what each of us had done on our own... and never lost an SD card before—let alone in the middle of a hay field as the sun went down.
It would’ve been heartbreaking if it wasn’t so comical. We all knew that in the grand scheme of things—compared to what my family had been through in the past year or two—this was nothing. But it was an interesting dilemma, if nothing else.
As the sun came up the next morning, BA stumbled into the kitchen and casually looked out the window over the sink. “Oh no!” he said as he threw on his shoes and flew out the back door. I peeked out the window to see our horses, Moon and Ria, standing in the exact spot where we had been looking. The place where’d we’d changed cards, or at least where we thought it had happened. He was soon standing right beside them, trying to shoo away a couple of thousand-pound animals from “the scene of the crime.”
I started laughing as I watched. Pretty soon Aaron and Julie and Daniel were in the field joining him—walking in circles—as I started breakfast for the baby and myself.
Twenty minutes later, Indiana was again beside me in her high chair finishing her oatmeal as I ate mine.
“You’re not gonna believe this...,” I heard BA say as he walked in the back door, followed by Aaron and Julie and Daniel—all with big smiles on their faces.
“You gotta be kidding me?” I asked.
“Nope.” And in his hand was the culprit. A black 64-gigabyte SanDisk card with the magic picture inside.
“How about that,” I said, as I turned to look at Indy. She just smiled and held her bowl up, “More Papa.”
That story is the ‘foreward’ to the my new book Once Upon A Farm that comes out in stores on June 19th. It’s something I’ve spent most of last spring and summer writing and am glad to finally get to share the news that it’s coming out in a few months. One of the reasons I was looking forward to sharing the foreward is because in this blog I can share more than I can in the book. I don’t just have to tell you about what happened when she saw the swing beside her Mama’s cross as the sun was setting that evening, I can show you…
All was going well until Indy saw the swing beside her Mama’s cross in the cemetery…
And so we took a little break…
I pushed her on the swing for awhile, but that didn’t help…
And neither did a wagon ride…
And so we made our way back to the house and went in for a snack, while the crew had an adventure of their own soon after…
Ain’t that how life is? It’s never really easy. It takes twists and turns and goes in directions you don’t want it to go in. You’re hoping for smooth sailing today, and the wind suddenly kicks up and spins your boat around in a completely different direction. And all you can do is hang on and try not to capsize.
It used to disappoint me, that life couldn’t be simpler. But I’ve learned to embrace it. To do more than embrace it. To love that life is that way. That the crazy ride is what life actually is, when it is at its best.
We could’ve walked into the back field and took pics for an hour, then gone inside and looked through what we’d shot and picked our favorite for the cover and e-mailed it to the publisher. That would’ve been easy. But it wouldn’t have been much of a story. Not a great story anyway.
Stories are always better when they are filled with conflict and your character is tested. When your character’s character is tested. Looking back at all the movies I love or stories that I’ve heard that moved me... none of them are simple journeys where someone wants something and then get what they wanted. They are stories filled with drama and heart- break. With joy and suffering and lots and lots of time spent overcoming obstacles.
Someone wants something but they can’t seem to get it. And so they go in a different direction. And that leads to something they didn’t expect. They think they are lost. And they are. Until they realize that the wrong path has led them to the place they were trying to get to in the first place. And on, and on. It isn’t simple, but it’s gripping, with a hint of the kind of mystery in a Stephen King story and the magical romance of a Nicholas Sparks novel, all rolled into one.
Like the story of the photo on the cover of this book, our story is not simple. My story. And my wife’s and my family’s. It is complicated. Very complicated. I spent 240 pages telling a lot of it in my first book, This Life I Live. And I loved telling it, but the truth is, there’s more. So, so much more.
The writing of this book has also been much more complicated than I thought it’d be. And a lot harder. I had thought I knew what it was going to be about and then all of a sudden I realized that I didn’t. It was like the picture I had in my mind had gotten lost in a hayfield and I was stuck with no plan B. Not sure what I was going to do now. But I kept looking. Staying up late at night with the lamp beside my desk on, typing on my laptop, searching in the weeds of doubt that can fill our minds at times for what it was supposed to be... supposed to say. And just when I was about to lose hope and give up... there it was. And here it is.
To tell the story of how Indy and I and our older girls are moving forward and of the hope that is unfolding now, I had to go backward and share more about the end of another great story of hope. Because this one couldn’t be told if that one didn’t happen. One cannot be without the other. We couldn’t have this life we’re learning to live on our own, if we didn’t have the life we lived with my wife Joey before it.
Besides taking pictures for the book last summer, we also did some filming so we could put together the video that not only tells a bit more about the new book, but it shows you some more too. I love it of course, because it, like most things that I capture, is a day in our life that I get to keep forever. A moment with my little one, while she’s still little. While we’re on the part of this new journey that we’re on, not really knowing where it will lead, but having faith that someone up there does.