Kniggett stood perfectly for shearing. He always had; every shearing since his first, Kniggett stood rooted more than tied. He seemed to enjoy having his hot wool stripped off row by row, exposing the skin… More
“Oooph…Her teeth are a mess.”
Doc shone her headlight into Violetta’s jaw and gestured for me to take a look. Pronounced under-bite aside, she had jagged edges, uneven wear, and several sharp points that painted a pretty clear picture of why she dropped weight this winter.
Tuesday was herd health day; all ten of my horses (six full size and four minis) had their yearly shots and dental work done. Of the ten, only two were complicated. Violetta was one. Cinco, my old man horse whose teeth have mostly stopped growing, was the other.
Many non-horsey people don’t realize that a horse’s teeth continually grow as they age. Yearly floating (grinding down of the teeth) is in order to level out the rough edges that form as the teeth wear against each other. In some horses, like Violetta, the wear pattern isn’t consistent, and sharp, painful points can form inside the mouth. She will need a follow up in six months to try and level out her lower front teeth that are being worn down by the upper fronts in a undesirable fashion due to the underbite, but, for now, we sorted the issue as much as it can be sorted.
Last year, yearly shots and teeth floating got away from me. I just didn’t manage to make the appointment. To be honest, plenty of horse owners don’t have teeth done every year, and lots of people don’t vaccinate animals who never leave home, but on Tuesday, when I learned that Violet was having issues due to my forgetfulness, I felt the guilt pour in. (Guys, I should probably add “feeling guilty” to the special skills section of my resume. I am SO good at it.)
My to-do lists out here are miles long; it can be a little too easy to miss something, even something important. I have lists for both houses, both barns, the pastures, the woods, the gardens, the driveway, and for all of the animals. I have lists restricted by time, lists restricted by money, and lists restricted by motivation or skill. I have lists of long-term goals. Lists for the spring. Lists for the summer. A list for today. Some of the lists are yearly. Some are seasonal. Some are weekly or monthly. A few are pie-in-the-sky wish lists that I may or may not ever find time or money for. Despite the fact that I, my boyfriend, and my dad regularly work to tackle items on the lists, they never seem to get much shorter.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by it, to look at this place through the lens of everything that needs to be done and feel only heaviness. That’s how my ex saw the ranch at the end, and on my bad days, when I’m dealing with my anxiety, or depression, or when I’m reckoning with something I left undone for a little too long, it’s hard to see it any other way.
I think this tendency to only see what is undone is natural programming. It’s natural to be concerned with our next meal, to concern ourselves with the next season. Humans have learned to survive by anticipating future needs rather than just immediate ones.
I also think that this normal, natural behavior can run amok and cause us to live in a state of striving, never being satisfied with where we are right now, with what we’ve accomplished, with the items on the to-do list that we manage to check off.
We so seldom give ourselves credit for what we actually do.
The other day, I was complaining to my boyfriend about the fact that I couldn’t muster any extra energy to work on any of the big lists that day. I was racked with exhaustion and also guilty about feeling exhausted. I couldn’t relax completely because I felt guilty about needing to do nothing for a while.
“Yeah,” he replied, “I think you completely underestimate the amount of energy it takes to accomplish the day to day out here. You do a lot. Everyday. Feeling tired after all the regular stuff is done is completely understandable.”
I don’t know why his response struck such a deep chord, but it did. Maybe it was that his response rang of “you are enough” when it used to be that I only got choruses of “you need to do more,” but I think I could have cried with relief. I was content, for a little while, to rest.
Most of us don’t give ourselves enough credit. We forget to count the things we accomplish, the hard work of simply living, and focus unendingly on the to-do list.
I have a friend who works full-time as a teacher, runs a horse ranch full of mostly rescued critters, and is currently renovating a property. As often as not, when we chat, she laments the laundry that she hasn’t gotten to.
One of my dearest friends, who works full-time almost an hour from her home and is in the middle of raising two wonderful little boys, tends to mention the floors she hasn’t quite gotten around to cleaning this week.
My close friend who is currently working full-time THROUGH CHEMOTHERAPY (CAN WE REPEAT THAT ONE FOR THE FOLKS IN THE BACK???) mentioned to me the last time that I saw her that she wishes she ordered less take-out and managed to cook more.
I could go on and on, listing all the people I know who accomplish way more than they give themselves credit for, but then this post would damn near go on forever, and I think you get the idea. Life, as it turns out, takes a lot of effort, and you’re probably doing more than you think.
After John’s comment, I took a moment to catalog everything that I had already done that day, and, later, I took a moment to appreciate just how far the ranch has come since changing hands. The list is growing, always, but it’s also changing. It’s not stagnant. Slowly but surely, the things that need to be done are getting done. Slowly but surely, I’m getting better at prioritizing and better at recognizing that things are moving in the right direction.
My herd health day moved off the list. A recheck for Violet and Cinco in September got penciled in in its place. So did booster shots for Cody and Gem in a month. So did a new course of treatment for my two horses with heaves.
The list is actually longer now with herd health done–funny how that happens–but life is more than a series of to-do lists.
The ranch is more than a series of to-do lists.
I am more than a series of to-do lists.
And so are you.
It’s been one of “those” days.
You know the ones…
It’s the sort of day that feels a bit like three. Nothing goes catastrophically wrong, but things don’t go quite right either. Minor inconveniences twang at the edges of your nerves like a curious toddler smacking the strings of a slightly out of tune banjo with their open hand. There is nothing intentional or melodic about it, but there is a lot of noise.
It’s the sort of day I tend to have out here at the tail-end of winter, when it is just too fucking cold for roughly the millionth day in a row, and all I want to do is shut myself in the house for three or four days with cozy blankets, a warm hot chocolate, a roaring fire, and a great memoir, but I’ve given up sugar (so no hot cocoa), I can’t get a fire to catch without a starter log that I forgot to buy, the horses need round bales put out and the ponies are hungry, so I have to brave the frozen tundra just long enough for my fingers and toes to go numb through my gloves and boots instead.
It’s been that kind of day.
It’s been a difficult winter.
Cold, snow, and ice have been tracks playing on repeat this season, a symphony Elsa herself would be proud of. Outside of the polar vortex with it’s -55 wild chills–as though that wasn’t enough all on it’s own–we’ve also had record breaking snowfalls, winter storms gracing the forecast with alarming regularity, and ice. Lots of ice.
The Midwest is a place that NEEDS its seasons. The summer is too summery to last forever. I couldn’t handle the horse flies or poison ivy or 100 degree days with staggering humidity all year long, even in exchange for the fireflies, wildflowers, and warm summer nights. By August, I’m looking forward to the drop in temperature, bonfires, and pumpkin everything that are coming around the corner. Likewise, I start getting stir crazy at the end of winter. (For the love of all that is good and holy, give me just one day that I don’t wind up feeling cold!) Right now, I am aching for 45 degrees, chores without a bulky winter coat, and a slow slide into spring.
There are bluebells and daffodils tucked under the frozen dirt somewhere; I just know it. Gardens to clean up. Chicks to raise. Native bee houses, bat houses, and bird houses to put up. Seeds to sow in ground that needs tilling. Raised beds I was given for Christmas that are just waiting for me to find them homes. There are bikes to ride. Horses to groom. Ponies to begin socializing. There are a thousand plans swirling around in my head, more than one summer can possibly contain, but I feel like that’s half the fun.
In the meantime though, my clay rich dirt is as hard as rock. My full bale hay nets are frozen to the ground and completely unusable. The chicken coop is desperate for a good cleaning, but I won’t be able to do a thing with it until the thaw. Until winter begins to release it’s freezing grip, the only thing I can do is continue.
I was cranky when I met my hay supplier at my horse pasture around 5:15. I think maybe he was too. Not at each other, mind you, at the cold weather and the setting sun.
“How are you holding up out here?”
I tried not to look at the hundreds of dollars of hay waste on the ground. Without my nets to slow them down, the horses have been going through hay like a trust fund baby going through cash on their first trip to Vegas. This winter is costing more than emotional energy.
“Hanging in,” I replied. “Sick and tired of the cold.”
Larry looked up, searching the skies for just a moment before replying.
“I saw the geese flying north earlier.”
That’s the sort of thing we look for out here, the same way that we pay attention to the number of woolly worms in the fall to give us a clue about the coming winter. The geese, I can assure you, know something that Larry and I do not, and the geese are on their way back home.
The wild things are stirring. Last night, as I filled the horse trough, hands going slightly numb through my gloves, I heard the barn owls call to one another. One was behind me in the woods on the creek side. The other was across the horse pasture in the woods towards the neighbor’s corn fields. They cut through the silence with their call and reply, a sound I’ve gotten used to in my time out here on the ridge line. I only occasionally see them, but they’ve been my neighbor’s for years.
I’ve started hearing the chorus of just a few plucky songbirds in the morning when I walk the lane to start my chores. Most of them are relatively quiet through the winter. By mid-summer they will make up an orchestra.
For now, I’m only hearing solitary notes, but the song is coming. The song and the bluebells are on their way.
“Ok,” I said, “tell me why this wouldn’t work.”
John, God bless the man, was standing in my chicken coop with an ice breaker, chipping away at the mass of chicken shit and ice that was preventing the coop door from closing.
He looked over before replying.
“Tell you why what wouldn’t work…?”
“What if, instead of creating a horse stall in the center aisle, we bed it down, close the aisle off on one end, and let all the llamas in there. Then we could give the llama stall to four of the horses.”
The Polar Vortex was approaching with anticipated -55 degree wind chills (thank God for 10 day forecasts), and I had been racking my brain for the best way to shut all of the animals inside the main barn and out of the elements. This was my third or fourth proposal and the one that I believed had the most potential.
“What about the hay you stored at the end of the aisle?” he asked.
“Let them eat hay!” I replied.
I spent three days getting myself and the barn (and my house, and the guesthouse) ready for the onslaught of cold. Last Monday evening, I moved the llamas, shut in the ponies, battened down the chicken coop, bribed the cats to stay in the tack room, and brought in only partially willing horses. (You know what isn’t much fun? Trying to catch an off-the-track thoroughbred race horse in the dark, through a foot and a half of snow, who has no interest in being caught.)
I fed extra hay. I triple checked stall locks. I prepped, and prepped, and prepped, but as I turned off the barn lights that first night, and the weather closed in, I still wondered how the next few days would play out.
Those who know me in real life know that I have some issues with control. I plan. I research. I try to micromanage my life and create something that I can exert my will upon. I want there to be reasons for things, and I want to know all of those reasons. (And, frankly, I want to be able to argue with those reasons if I disagree with them.)
I struggle with both anxiety and depression (the uppers and downers of mental health). Neither condition is debilitating for me; I have relatively mild doses of each, and it’s uncommon for the depression to get so bad that I don’t want to get out of bed or for the anxiety to get so bad that it feels like my skin is crawling and that I want to scream, but they still exist as realities in my life. (Side note, did you know that “The Scream” by Edvard Munch likely depicted the artist’s panic attack? I used to not get the painting, but now, I FEEL it.) Sometimes I think they combine and create an unnatural need to control my environment under the false belief that if I control things enough I can keep bad things from happening.
…It’s a thought.
I could hear the wind howling as I laid in bed Monday night. It cuts off of the river in the winter, straight up the hills and across the ranch, bringing a stinging, icy chill. I laid in bed, trying to reassure myself that I had done everything I could, that the weather would come regardless, and that what happened from here was beyond my control.
My anxiety whispered in my ear that night as I tried to sleep, creating a parade of imaginary problems that marched in front of me one by one.
“What if all the water lines freeze?”
“What if one of the animals freeze?”
“What if one of the animals gets sick?”
“What if one of the gates get unlocked?”
“What if one of the critters die?”
“WHAT IF ALL THE CRITTERS DIE???”
“WHAT IF I SLIP ON THE ICE ON THE WAY TO THE BARN, AND I HIT MY HEAD, AND I FREEZE AND DIE???”
“What if absolutely everything I’m worried about right now is beyond my control? What if I can’t do a damn thing about it? What if I try to get some sleep?”
The next morning, with straight temps hovering around -20, I made my way back out to the barn. The llamas had obviously had a party in their center stall, and enjoyed the access that living in the center of the barn gave them to my goings on. They constantly pushed the not-quite-shut feed-room door open to check on me while I was in there.
About half of my autowaterers had frozen up, and I spent half the morning hanging and filling water buckets to replace them. But everyone was mostly ok. We spent the next few days doing mostly ok. Mostly ok, but bored. Mostly ok, but stir crazy. Mostly ok, but chilled. Mostly ok with deathly cold just on the other side of the barn door didn’t seem so bad.
Last week, I reopened the barn to the combined rejoicing of everyone who had been shut inside. Two days ago, I found one of my chickens dead in the coop. My vet supposed her to be a victim of the cold. A delayed victim, but a victim nonetheless.
“Her body probably couldn’t recover from the shock,” she told me when I mentioned my one casualty.
I cradled the hen’s dead body in one arm and hiked out into the woods a ways. That’s what I do with them; it’s become a weird ritual for me. I laid her behind a tree, far enough away from my barn that she won’t draw attention to my living birds, and I said a quick thank you; my hens do a job for me that I like to acknowledge.
Something–a raccoon or bobcat or coyote–will take her body and eat it. Nothing will be wasted.
Livestock teach you to take 100% responsibility, while acknowledging your complete lack of control. It’s a hard lesson, this realization that all the planning in the world can’t guarantee an outcome, the realization that the world spins on in its own way regardless of our intentions for it.
It’s also lovely, because sometimes acknowledging your smallness reminds you to settle into it and let go of your illusion of control.
When the cold comes, you do the best you can and let go of the rest. Settle in, and know that warmer air is on its way.
2018 rolled into 2019 without fanfare. I watched the time change from 11:59 to 12:00 on my wristwatch, and John and I wished each other a quiet “Happy New Year.” That came after chores. After tucking in for the night to watch “The West Wing” on Netflix. After remembering that the horses needed a bale of hay that I had forgotten to give to them. John went back outside in pajamas to take care of it. Two hours later, we rang in the new year with sleepy eyes.
At this point in my life, I’m not much for “dramatic change” resolutions at the turning of the year. I know myself better than to think that I will manage to give up sugar, wake up three hours earlier everyday, and hit the gym for an hour before chores. If I set my sights on that, I will burn out, give up any strides I make due to perceived failure, and end up back where I started.
It’s not a useful cycle.
Instead, I like to take the new year as an opportunity to reflect on the ways I’ve changed over the course of the last 365 days. I like to contemplate the ways life has unexpectedly twisted or turned, what I’ve lost, what I’ve gained, and what I would like to do a little differently on this next trip around the sun.
For me, 2018 was a normalizing year. After roughly three years of trauma and unhappiness, the events of this year provided some stability and happiness; a few years ago, normalizing was more than I could have possibly hoped for, but, last year, I found my footing again on what had been unstable ground for a very long time.
I found myself in a relationship with someone who treats me well. (Guys, that’s totally a thing. In some relationships, you are consistently treated really well, as though the other person really, genuinely likes you. I had no idea…)
I traveled. Domestically and abroad. Alone and with friends.
I made it to California with John.
I made it to New Jersey to spend time with one of my besties, Lauren, and attend Julie Maloney’s book launch for A Matter of Chance. (If you’re looking for a great mystery to read in 2019, you should pick up a copy; it’s a great read.)
I spent time in Greece with my darling ladies in Women Reading Aloud. I wrote at the edge of the Aegean, swam in the salt water, and walked ancient streets in Athens. I watched the sun set in an unfamiliar sky and hiked paths of unfamiliar dirt.
I rounded out the Fall with one of my dearests in Paris and London. I rode horses through French forests, and we rode bicycles across the grounds of Versailles. We drank wine and ate way too much cheese.
(I’m still not quite sure how I managed all of that in one year, except that my soul needed it, and the universe opened the door. )
Acquaintances became friends.
And my people reminded me over and over again how lucky I am to have them.
All the while, I dealt with and mostly managed depression. I chose to get off antidepressants. I spent more time in therapy. I continued to recover from the trauma of my divorce. Every single smile in these photos was genuine, and the year was good, but that doesn’t mean every moment was suddenly easy.
Five of my deeply beloved creatures passed on, and I felt their lives and the loss of them fold into me like flour folding into dough. More than ever, I am convinced that they never really leave us. Love is never, ever wasted.
One of my dearest friends was diagnosed with cancer. She’s undergoing chemo now; the woman is a fucking beast, and I can’t wait for all of you to read her blog once it launches. (Seriously, stay tuned. She’s hilarious. I’ve seen the drafts.)
Even the good years remind us that life is brutal. And life is beautiful. And this year in particular taught me that no matter how impossible things seem to get, the good stuff comes back around again eventually. (And then the hard stuff, and then the good stuff. An object at rest may remain at rest, but our lives are never objects at rest; continually they are moved.)
In my teens and twenties, I was more prone to hard resolutions. I liked resolutions with numbers. Number of pounds to lose. Number of books to read. Number of miles to run. A number on a paycheck.
I’m more interested in the soft resolutions now. The sort that move beyond success or failure and simply recognize progress. The sort that allow me to see that goals are just part of journey. Treat my body better. Make more time for the creatures in my care. Be kinder. Wander in familiar and unfamiliar places whenever I am given the chance. Write more. Read more. Love more.
I could be wrong, but it seems to me that most of our greatest achievements are the result of playing the hand we are dealt in the best way we know how, and, God knows, you can’t pick your own cards. Over the last four years, life has been teaching me that sometimes the only thing we can do is stay in the game. Play through. Let the cards change. They always change, even when it feels like the same shitty cards are permanently glued to your hands.
2019 is picking up steam. The semester starts again in a few weeks, and I go back to teaching. The plans I make are being done and undone, and I’m working on the soft resolutions. I’m working on the writing and reading and wandering.
The days are getting longer. They always do.
There needs to be a setting on my Fitbit for “walking through the snow in coveralls.” Regular steps seem wholly inadequate for the trudge that takes me between the house and the barns each morning and evening. Something between walking and swimming would do nicely I think…
The ranch has been blanketed with snow for the better part of a week. Everything takes a little extra effort. Waterers require heaters. Three of my llamas are wearing coats. One is being supplemented with grain. The chickens are being fed black oil sunflower seeds for extra calories in addition to their regular food. Stalls are getting messier, faster. And, of course, there’s the two pair of socks and coverall wearing trudge.
This is the time of year that always makes farmers, ranchers, critter enthusiastic hobbyists, and almost farmgirls question our own sanity.
It’s too cold for humans, we proclaim, tucked safely under our covers, dreading the moment that our feet hit the floor and our day begins in earnest.
It’s too cold for critters, we decide, putting a coat on an animal who, in the wild, definitely wouldn’t be wearing a coat.
It’s too cold for water, we somewhat insanely argue, as we pull a puck-like chunk of ice off the waterer whose heater isn’t keeping up.
Why do I do this? The question rattles around in the empty spaces created by all of the cold.
Things break. Animals shiver. Our faces get chapped by the frigid air, and our toes go just a little numb in our boots when we forget to put on two pairs of socks.
The ancients used to bring evergreens into their homes in the winter as an act of sympathetic magic. (It’s where we get our Christmas trees, actually.) It was a reminder that spring and summer would come again. The greenery provided comfort against their stark, harsh world of cold and dark and white. It was reminder of the renewal that was waiting for them just under the surface of the snow.
I get it.
Last weekend, my boyfriend and I decorated my tree. We chose a little beauty from my hay supplier’s tree lot. It is on the smaller side, a cute little Fraser fir, but it is full, and well-branched, and lovely. Everything I look for in a Christmas tree. My hay guy gave it to me for free, insisting that I paid enough for hay throughout the year to merit a free Christmas tree, and it is standing in my sunroom smelling a little bit like heaven.
John strung the lights, and I pulled out my collection of ornaments while we waited on the most recent blizzard. He built a fire in the fireplace. We opened a bottle of wine, and I took my yearly walk down memory lane, choosing ornaments from my collection that seemed especially meaningful. I added a few this year. I put a few in a donation box whose meaning no longer felt dear to me (several of them commemorating milestones with my ex husband).
We sipped wine and cuddled up with the cats for the rest of the evening, enjoying our little bit of magic with it’s glittering ornaments and fairy lights. I ventured out in my pajamas and coveralls with a flashlight in hand as the sleet turned to snow to bring the horses in from the field.
As the ice stung my face, I briefly wondered why I feel so pulled to this place and this work. Then the horses made their way into the barn, bits of snow clinging to their long eyelashes and against their manes and tails. The ponies nickered from their stall, wondering if perhaps it wasn’t time for second dinner. The llamas hummed softly from across the aisle, munching hay from the nets I had refilled earlier that day.
I made my way back to the house, back to my boyfriend, back to the dogs and cats I share my home with, back to the warm fire, and the tree that awaited me with it’s sympathetic magic, and I realized that the barn was full of magic of its own. The creatures there reminding me, in their own way, that we are all in this together. That we are connected to one another and to the seasons as they come and go. That the snow and the cold and the chill are both temporary and beautiful.
I settled into the couch next to John and sipped my glass of red wine.
It was quiet. The lights on the tree glittered through and shone against the ornaments. The fire crackled. Renewal waits on the other side of this season, on the other side of the snow, and the cold will pass. For now though, I will steel myself against the cold, enjoy the quiet moments, and try to pay attention to the magic.
“If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”
This advice is popularly attributed to Mark Twain, the folksy sage of American literature. Essentially, it’s an argument for getting the most unpleasant part of your day out of the way first thing. Client you don’t want to talk to? Eat the frog. Chore you don’t want to do? Eat the frog. Student papers you aren’t excited to grade? Put the ones you know will be subpar on top.
I laid in bed yesterday thinking about eating the frog.
“Eat the Frog, Cherity. Just eat the freaking frog.”
Yesterday, though, my first frog was just getting out of bed. When that happens, it’s a pretty good indicator that my depression is creeping back in. Continue reading “Eating the Frog, Christmas Music, and My Three Depression Lists”
Four years and two days ago, my ex-husband and I loaded up two tiny ponies and brought them home to stay. One was a little, palomino filly with a deep love of cuddles, and one was a little, chestnut colt with an attitude that outpaced his stature. They were an anniversary gift from my ex-husband (probably the best gift he ever gave me), adopted from one of my favorite animal rescues, Guardian Oak in Moberly, Missouri.
Both had been rescued from the New Holland auction with their mothers. I met them originally when they were just a few months old. They were as cute as buttons and so small my ex picked them up to trim their hooves.
Rescues get a bad rap, especially in the equine world, where, admittedly, taking on a poorly behaved or unsocialized animal can be dangerous. But these two, under the care of Sherri Crider, her family, and her volunteers, were well-socialized from the start and have always been exceptionally good for me. (Well, I mean, Slash did go through a visit the neighbors phase that I probably could have done without…and he does occasionally have Napoleon Complex moments like any self-respecting pony, but that’s just his pony power showing through.) Continue reading “A post about ponies!”
A piece I wrote for shelovesmagazine.
Schmida was an immigrant. Jewish. German. A Holocaust survivor. She spoke Yiddish and fed the neighborhood children alongside her own (the way mothers everywhere do.) When one of those children asked her to teach him, she willingly and enthusiastically handed down a recipe that he would later use to win the baking competition at the county fair. A recipe he would later hand down to me. —Cherity Cook
As Cherity makes a special birthday cake for her dad, she can’t help but remember how much immigration has been mixed into our stories.
You know that moment?
The one that comes when you are trying desperately to be professional?
To pass for a calm, cool, collected businessperson? Perhaps while you’re at a bank, finishing a nearing six-figure aircraft deal, providing closing instructions to a banker on behalf of your client?
And then the wild duckling that you have hidden in your cleavage starts peeping?
Don’t you just hate that? Continue reading “The one about the duckling I hid in my cleavage.”
I spent part of this evening cleaning up around the house.
As usual, I couldn’t really stay on task. I wandered. Washing sheets from one room. Picking up in another. I clean like an ADHD squirrel, bouncing from room to room, lacking cohesion and getting distracted by each new corner. I once set out to dust my bedroom and wound up reorganizing the entire contents of my walk-in hallway closet instead. The bedroom went undusted. The closet turned out wonderfully, and I’m still not sure how that happened.
All of this to say, I didn’t set out to throw away wedding memorabilia today, but somewhere in the process of cleaning up my guest room, I stumbled upon my one-time treasures and decided that it was time that they stop taking up space…in my home and in my life. Unity candles are a lovely metaphor, and you never expect to see the day come that you toss them aside, but their meaning is lessened once the pair they unified sever all the ties the flame represented. I took out the ceremonial objects and unceremoniously dumped them into my trash outside next to the dirty cat litter. Continue reading “Why I Paid an Artist to Cut My Wedding Dress into Pieces.”