I read a book once that pointed out that life tends to divide itself into befores and afters. It’s true, when you think about it. Some are obvious milestones: Before high school. After high school. … More
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh
It’s still warm enough for crickets to chirp their song at the end of the day, but only just. Our fall colors are still flirting with the green of summer. Fall happens slowly here. You almost miss it, sandwiched between our Midwestern summers and winters which compete every year to be fiercer than the other. Fall is quiet. Unlike the famous colors out east, our colors don’t come all at once. We entertain shades of gold and green and red in the same moment. Oranges like pumpkins. Scarlet like the lips of emboldened women. Yellow leaves reminiscent of gold jewelry worn to be noticed and envied. All of this beside the slow trees that cling to their chlorophyll, still green into November. Even lovelier for their slow and steady, almost cautious, pace.
I walked out to the barn this evening wearing a sweatshirt and jeans; it’s not cold enough to break out my winter things yet, but if I know anything about time and seasons and the Midwest and ranch work, I know that those coats and hats and gloves aren’t as far away as they seem right now. Acorns crunched under each step; in no time their crunch will be replaced by the crunch of snow underfoot.
The barn was quiet. Most of the animals, especially the llamas, were out in their fields enjoying the green grass. I walked down the barn aisle attending to those who required a special dinner. The quiet of my evening interrupted by the occasional impatient whinny or llama hum.
Twice a day, everyday, this is my world. Llamas. Alpacas. Horses. Chickens. Silly little ponies. A random pet turkey hen who doesn’t really like me all that much. It comes complete with all the dust, and manure, and work I can manage…plus just enough more to remind me that the work will never, ever actually be done. It is overwhelming sometimes. Exhausting sometimes. Heartbreaking sometimes.
It is also beautiful in ways I still struggle to put to words.
I walked down the lane farther and dislodged a hay bale from my stack. Hooves pounded the ground, and my horses called to me as I carried a bale out into the field. Some trotted. A few cantered. One sprung into a mad gallop that ended in bucks of pure joy. I watched and listened. I will never tire of the sound of hoof beats. Watching my horses gallop in for dinner will never get old.
But I don’t always watch or listen.
I try to practice mindfulness in my life: taking the time to center myself to my breath, notice what is going on around me, and live in the moment.
I have to be honest, I’m really bad at it most of the time.
I’m a very cerebral person in general, and it’s hard for me to let go of what’s going on in my head long enough to notice what’s going on in front of me. When I finally take a moment to slow down and notice the world around me, I am most often struck by what I miss out on everyday.
Tonight could have passed that way, like so many others. But for some reason, instead of quickly tossing hay and leaving my horses to their dinner, I walked around checking in with each of them. I kissed Phoenix on the nose. I scratched Morana’s neck. I said hello to each horse. Then, impulsively when he came up to me and seemed to offer it, I climbed on Jiminy Cricket’s back.
It’s been a while since I climbed on a horse bareback.
I had no intention of asking him for anything. This wasn’t going to be a battle of wills; I wasn’t a rider, just a passenger. He had complete say over where we went. How fast we traveled. He wasn’t bothered, settling in quietly to eat hay with his pet monkey on his back.
I sat there while the sun set. The oak leaves ruffled gently in the breeze and the light glittered between them. The sunlight played in a way that made me understand why the ancients believed in faeries.
Jiminy felt warm and powerful and gentle beneath me. He took a deep breath in response to my own, and we settled into this moment in the fall, the light like golden glitter between the leaves, and the sweet smell of hay.
I slid off his back as the light I had been watching began to dim. The horses watched me leave, and I walked back to the house hearing the crunch of acorns.
And I thought about Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the poet who once wrote that “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God.” Most of the time, we miss it, but sometimes? Sometimes we see the fire. We recognize the holy. We sit in the sacred, and we remember, though we will probably soon forget again, that the sacred is always within reach.
I was scrolling through the calendar on my phone, looking for an appointment I couldn’t remember making, when I scrolled across a repeating reminder.
It made my stomach drop to be honest, and I flashed to memories of a lacy white dress, yellow roses on white tablecloths, and promises that were supposed to last forever.
“For better or for worse.”
“For richer or for poorer.”
“Forsaking all others…”
“Anniversary…” plugged in to my phone because I’ve always had a hell of a time with dates, even important ones, and I need reminders. And there it was, my reminder, set to repeat into infinity, because when you get married you promise each other forever, and you can’t imagine a world where you won’t need a reminder for that date.
I deleted the reminder–I wouldn’t need it anymore–but the word hung like a shadow for the rest of the day. It would have been seven years this year, and, even though I’ve honestly gotten to the place where I feel pretty damn lucky that the marriage ended, the reminder still tagged along with me for the rest of the day.
It’s funny to me that “divorced” is considered a “relationship status,” as though it were somehow different from single. Once you are divorced, you are never again just “single”…you are divorced. Which, as far as I can tell, mostly just means single but with a shit ton of emotional baggage. I feel like I’m wearing a sticker across my forehead when I say it. “I’m Divorced” equals “My marriage failed…Try and guess who’s fault it is.” A scarlet letter.
I remember sitting watching television as a kid, listening to the adults in the next room discuss someone’s divorce, lamenting that “people just throw away their marriages these days.” Divorce, in the subculture I was raised in, is a character failing. By that reasoning, I guess I write this with a failed character.
There’s a meme that pops up on Facebook every few months of an elderly couple who, when asked how they “managed to stay together for so long” respond that “It’s simple really. We are from a time where if something is broken, we fix it; Not throw it away.”
I have to admit, the first time I saw that meme, I thought it was really cute.
“Yes.” I thought, a touch too self-righteously, “People need to stick together and fix things.”
I was raised in 90s evangelical purity culture, with its message that if you don’t sleep around before marriage, God will bless you with a happy, fulfilling relationship. In youth groups and Bible studies, marriage was the finish line instead of the starting gate. Women were framed in relation to their husbands. I was raised to believe that marriage was meant to last forever. I was raised to believe that wedding vows are sacred. I was raised to believe that, once you’re married to someone, you will always be married in the eyes of God, no matter what the courts may say.
Later, when I found myself living in what could only be described as a toxic relationship, a toxic marriage complete with abandonment and adultery, those ideas that I no longer entirely subscribe to clanged around in my head like marbles in a tin can, noisy and pointless and undeniable. I thought endlessly on those words: “throw away” and “fix.” I spent two and a half years of my life trying to repair a relationship that was fucked up beyond repair. I tried to repair it despite what my friends said. I tried to repair it despite how I was treated. I tried to repair it despite the warning of a marriage therapist who told both of us that it was obvious to her that he was not invested in repairing the relationship.
I hung on. I kept trying.
Sometimes, I honestly wish I had just “thrown away my marriage” In retrospect, it would have been completely reasonable to throw myself into a life boat when the ship started sinking, to get the hell away from something that would only prove to nearly drown me.
I thought back on those vows and wondered how they really worked. Do they become void once broken? And, if so, in what order? Am I off the hook on “for better or for worse” because he broke “in sickness and in health” and “forsaking all others,” or was this just the “for worse” before we swung back around to “for better?”
Ending my marriage was the most difficult decision of my life, but, in the end, it was my decision. I filed the paperwork. I made the call. I “threw away” my marriage. I dissolved my marriage to save myself.
And when I did it, I didn’t think about the common things that the Bible has to say about marriage. I mean, I did, but I also oddly thought about Abraham and Issac.
There is a passage in Genesis that recounts a story about Abraham. He is called upon by God to sacrifice his beloved son on an alter. In the end, with Issac waiting on the alter for his father to plunge a knife into his chest, God stays Abraham’s hand and provides a ram instead.
Biblical scholars tend to agree that this story serves to point out the differentiation between Judaism and the other religions of the time that encouraged human sacrifice.
I don’t know why exactly, but I thought about this story a lot in relationship to my marriage. In the end, I couldn’t make myself believe that the same God who spared Issac would want me to sacrifice my own life on the alter of marriage, bound and shackled to something that was eating away at my soul. I couldn’t help but believe that when we become so committed to an institution, like marriage, that we abandon the well-being of the people who belong to it, that is when we lose ourselves and our humanity.
This path has felt nearly impossible at times. Every step I took away from the man I still loved felt like a self-inflicted torture. But that didn’t make it less right.
Here’s one of the things I have learned: almost no one just “throws away” a marriage. No one dissolves the most important relationship in their life on a whim. Some things just can’t be fixed. Sometimes it’s better for your soul to let go. (I probably should have let go a lot sooner, if I’m being honest.) And sometimes the most important thing you will ever do is decide it’s time to walk away.
My ex didn’t want the farm.
Actually, he did, until he didn’t anymore, but that’s a little beside the point.
That day last summer, the day that he yelled over the phone that the farm would kill me, that it was too much for me to do on my own, he was pretty clear on not wanting the farm.
I stood between my barns, acutely aware of everything that was broken or undone. Everything that required my time and my energy and my money. Everything that needed to be done that I didn’t know how to do. Tears ran down my cheeks, because his words left me with no future.
He didn’t want the farm. He insisted that I couldn’t handle it alone. He didn’t want to live in Illinois. He didn’t want all the animals. My future with him hung on my willingness to give up the farm and the animals, to move states away from my good-paying job, my family, and all my friends. And, even then, it seemed that I would be trading one version of alone for another: even if I had given up everything in my life and had moved to Pennsylvania with him, he still wouldn’t be around. He was still chasing a work schedule that had him on the road three weeks a month, and he made it pretty clear that that wouldn’t change. I would still be alone, only without a job, friends, my animals, or my family.
As far as I could tell, the life he wanted didn’t have any room in it for me. It certainly didn’t have room for the critters we had rescued together. I considered what my life would be like in Pennsylvania, trading my ranch for a one-bedroom apartment somewhere near the fancy Pennsylvania barns, and I racked my brain over what would happen to the animals that I wouldn’t have the space or the money for if I followed him.
And, ugly crying, I called Lauren.
“What if I can’t do it? He says this place will kill me.”
Lauren has the collected disposition of someone who has spent most of her life dealing with the unpredictability of horses, and while I’ve seen the “New Jersey” come out in her once or twice, she generally doesn’t get too upset. But I heard her blood pressure rising in her next words.
“You can’t handle it? What the fuck does he think you’ve been doing for the last year and a half?”
I knew I had struck a nerve; Lauren had been running her own ranch alone for nearly as long as I had been running mine, and, like me, she had fielded her own share of negativity.
“Look, of course you can’t do it all alone, but no one does this all alone. That’s not how farms work. You will do most of it, like you have been, and you will ask for help when you need it, and things will get done. You probably won’t do things like he would, and that’s ok.”
“Besides, even if it turns out that you can’t manage everything on your own, that will be ok, because you will have tried. And honestly, you never signed up to do all of this by yourself. It was supposed to take two of you. That was the deal.”
My ex wasn’t the only one to tell me I couldn’t handle the farm on my own. As news slowly spread of our break up, any number of well-meaning individuals expressed the same sentiment, albeit without the yelling. Saying things like, “Oh honey, it’s just too much!” or “I just don’t know how you’ll do this.” Some cloaked it in feeling sorry for me. Some felt betrayed by my ex’s behavior on my behalf.
I remember walking down the farm lane one afternoon with a friend, carrying a dead chicken upside down by her legs. The chicken had been killed by a predator, and I was taking her into the woods, far away from the coop. I didn’t want her body to draw more predators into the barnyard.
I was feeling so nearly defeated, this dead pet hanging limp next to me as I walked, and my friend, feeling badly for me, let loose a volley of what I’m sure she considered to be sympathetic thoughts about how unfair it was that I was dealing with that on my own, about how hard everything was, about how she just couldn’t see how I could manage.
The words were different, but the message was the same as my ex’s: This place was far too much to manage. I would fail.
The message landed in my weak places because of the truth in it.
The truth is, I had never planned to take this place on my own. I don’t think it would have been offered to me as a single person, and I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to say yes to it if it had been. The truth is, I have questioned a thousand times whether or not I was strong enough to keep this place running by myself. When my depression comes knocking, it tugs at those fears like a loose thread in the fabric of my life.
“What if I fail?”
“What if I can’t?”
“What if I’m not strong enough?”
“What if it all falls apart?”
But then, if my divorce has taught me anything, it’s that all the “what ifs” in the world will never change what is.
As things fell apart, I debated my path almost endlessly, looking for a direction that made at least a little bit of sense. I considered following him. I considered downsizing. I considered running from this place that had been my dream since I was a girl out of fear of failure.
And then, though I’m not sure when, I decided that all of that was bullshit.
I wanted to save my marriage more than anything; I nearly tore myself in half for two years trying. But somewhere along the line, I realized that I couldn’t save a relationship with someone who would make zero room in his life for me. I couldn’t save a relationship that he had willingly betrayed for someone else. (Yeah…I haven’t told you all about that part…) And, if I kept trying, I would wind up losing myself.
In the end, when faced with the choice between losing him or losing myself, I chose to save myself.
And it fucking sucked.
Turns out, this place hasn’t killed me yet.
Nearly every step along this path is difficult. I am learning as I go. (Trial by fire, as it were.) But, at nearly every step, I have been surprised by the kindness and willingness to help of those around me. Help mowing. Help watching the animals. My dad teaching me to run my equipment or to install a new floor. The local farmer who delivers round bales to my horses when my equipment isn’t working. My friends who come out to hold llamas for shots or trimming. The vet who taught me to give my own equine shots. My extended family, who rallied to bring in 200 bales of hay out of my fields last summer before they got rained on.
(This, by the way, is what it looks like to “call in the cavalry.”)
Over and over, when I need it, help shows up. Over and over, I realize that I’m not entirely alone: out here or in this life.
Maybe this place would be too much if I were doing it alone, but I am realizing now that my latest lesson is this: None of us do anything alone, not really. The trick is to ask for help when we need it, or maybe just to accept the help that we’re offered as it comes along.
I’m learning that that’s ok. Accepting help doesn’t make me weak. Asking for help doesn’t make me less capable. It makes me human and reminds me of what Lauren told me that day when everything felt impossible and tears streamed down my face. No one does this alone.
I almost deleted this from my inbox, instead of reading it, because this morning my inbox was just one more thing I had to deal with. But the title piqued my interest, and I’m really glad I opened the link. I hope you guys enjoy this as much as I did.
“Fun is good,” Dr. Seuss is quoted as saying on the internet, so I can’t be entirely sure it’s true.
But even if it’s not, I could just quote myself saying it right now: “Fun is good.” – Matt
Because honestly, we need to be having more of it. Yes, even you. (Image/download-wallpaper.net)
Do you ever find yourself in situations where you’re supposed to be having fun and feeling good, but you’re not and you don’t?
Not only is what you’re doing NOT fun, but there’s the bonus element of suckage resulting from your unmet expectations and ensuing disappointment.
There are countless reasons why something we expected to be good turned out to be bad. Maybe we’re having a fight with our spouse or partner and now the party we attended with them isn’t fun. Maybe we have a chronic injury and the pain we feel on long runs or…
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I pulled the red and white notice off the door of my Heights house with a sigh. We would be fined within days if the lawn continued un-mowed, if the landscaping wasn’t trimmed back. Jeremiah and I (mostly Jeremiah) had been in a slow war with the code enforcement officer in the Heights most of the time that we lived there. Our fence was the first infraction–built on a corner lot and requiring signatures of all the neighbors and a hearing at city hall to build–but from then on the inspector took every opportunity to cite us, and Jeremiah took every opportunity to provoke him. We learned after the fence incident that bribes were the usual way of dealing with his red and white citations, and it seemed that forcing the issue with the city had been something of an embarrassment to him when all the council members immediately approved our “beautiful fence.”
But this time? Honestly, I could see his point.
I was at the Heights house to meet with our carpet installer for a quote. Getting that house on the market, so that I can stop carrying bills for two homes and re-appropriate some of my capital from the Heights into the farm, has been a long, slow, goal. Earlier this year, I hired my contractor to put on a new roof and finish the drywall in our new addition; just a month or so ago I bought all new light fixtures and paint. But it’s not quite there yet.
Oh – and I would love to make the lawn someone else’s problem.
Since we moved across the river, the lawn at the Heights has alternately been the problem of my dad, my former brother-in-law (who I still totally consider family…actually, I’m keeping all of Jeremiah’s family), and Jeremiah (occasionally…when he’s in town). This time? My dad offered to help me pick up the slack, once again, and that’s how we found ourselves taming back the jungle that was my former house’s lawn just before dusk.
I drove over to meet him with a weed whacker, hedge trimmers, and a potato fork in my truck, ready to whack, trim, or dig as necessary. When I pulled up, he was nearly finished mowing the yard.
My Heights house sits on a lot and a half in one of the nicer working class neighborhoods across the river. It was built nearly a hundred years ago, when houses were smaller and ceilings were taller. Nothing is perfectly square, the floors are, at best, levelish, and nearly every corner of the not quite 800 square feet (from one of our foundation walls to two staircases) made a valiant attempt to fall in on us while we lived there.
And it was completely perfect, and I couldn’t have loved it more.
It’s five minutes from anything you could possibly need. Sidewalks make it pedestrian (and pup) friendly; the posh boutique restaurants and shops uptown are a relatively easy walk if you’re in the mood. Our favorite pizza place was just up the block. Starbucks was just around the corner.
It’s the sort of neighborhood where neighbors know each other’s names and say hello. When my Amelia was a puppy, she made a habit of slipping the fence, running across the street to our favorite neighbors’ house, and waiting on the porch until Wade saw her, gave her pets, and walked her back home. It was a ritual for both of them for a few weeks, nearly every morning, until we figured out where she was escaping. He never complained once.
There’s a lot that I miss about that place.
I miss the front porch with its steps that I lined with flowers. The landscaping that we scrapped together from free splits, plant sales, and the occasional splurge.
I miss the sidewalks. I miss the neighborhood cats who used to come visit while we sat on the porch and drank wine in the evening under twinkle lights. I miss the people who would wave hello as I sat on the same porch drinking coffee and grading English papers.
I miss the utterly ingenious squirrels.
Mostly though, I miss the feeling of “knowing” what direction my life was heading. I miss the security I felt there with my cozy little house and almost blissfully happy marriage. I was sure of myself when I lived there in a way that I haven’t been able to reclaim since.
Nostalgia rolled over me as I pulled climbing weeds from the stems of the hydrangea plants that I worked for years to establish. They bloomed this year without my noticing; I only rarely drive by. The gardens that we had tended so exactly for years were overgrown and wild, a reminder that nature will reclaim whatever it feels it is due, even in town, even with a Starbucks just around the corner.
I bit back tears once or twice, not for the house exactly, but for the losses that my mind had folded into those walls, and that yard, and those pretty little hydrangeas.
When Dad and I finished up, we sat on the porch for a bit. The evening was cool, and the front porch was still perfect. One of the neighborhood cats, Bennie by his tag, sat with us and enjoyed pets.
“Things were good here…” I said to my dad, or maybe to myself, or maybe to no one in particular.
“Before the shit hit the fan,” he replied.
Yes, I thought. Before all of the shit hit all of the fans.
Once upon a time, in what feels like another life, I used to teach English 101 to Freshman at the local four year college. I had two additional goals for my students beyond what was specifically in the 101 instructor handbook: first, that they actually understand the rules for commas by the time they leave my class, and second, that they have a basic grasp of logic and logical fallacies. I won’t turn this post into a lesson on commas–suffice it to say there really are only four comma rules, and they aren’t that hard–but I was reminded of my logical fallacy lessons as I sat on the steps.
There is a fallacy called “the golden age fallacy” or “romanticizing the past.” (Since I’m not a professor anymore I’m just going to link this to Wikipedia for the gist.) Culturally, it’s prevalent as a bias for bygone times: “the good old days” when “men were men and women were women” (whatever the hell that really means) while ignoring ALL of the negative aspects of those decades or eras. It’s easy to see in politics on a grand scale, but the truth is, we tend to do it in our own lives as well.
Memories are remarkably unreliable, mostly because they were never designed for perfect playback as much as they were designed to help us adapt and survive. The memories that we keep for some time tend to be remembered as mostly positive or negative, while our current situations can be seen with more objectivity: the positive and negative weighed against each other. (Also, we tend to remember our best days, and our worst, but the “mostly ok” days that make up most of our lives slip through our mental lockers like water through a sieve.) Most of us have times in our lives that we remember with proverbial “rose-tinted glasses.” For me, my time in that little house comes across almost glowing.
Ah, but here’s the rub: if you’re willing to really think about those times, it becomes clear fairly quickly that things weren’t perfect and idyllic. That may make for a better story or a good memory, but it’s seldom the way our lives are actually lived.
I don’t miss the city noises, or the headlights that would shine through my bedroom window as people drove down the street in the middle of the night. I don’t miss the code enforcement guy monitoring my lawn, or the overzealous animal control in the county. I really don’t miss the fact that most of town used the weeks from the middle of June through the end of July as an excuse to set off fireworks at all hours.
I miss some of my neighbors, but I couldn’t wait to leave a few of them behind me.
I miss the convenience of being right in town, but I wouldn’t trade my farm lane for all the tea in China (or, you know, something I would realistically have more use and desire for than all of the Chinese tea…)
I would give almost anything to move my front porch across the river and park it squarely in front of this big, old ranch house, but there are limits to what you can actually take with you when you leave a place. So, instead of the porch, I’ll take the memories of the summer nights, and the twinkle lights, and the wine. I’ll hope that the next owners love the little house as much as we did, that their good memories will outweigh the bad, and that love will live there for a long time to come. Maybe I’ll even hope that their memories there show through rose-tinted glasses.
I’m mostly ok with it.
I walked around the little gardens and made a mental note of the clean-up yet to be done. Hopefully, those flower boxes that Jeremiah so painstakingly built for me will belong to someone else before long, but in the meantime, I believe I can afford to give them just a little more time and attention.
Before leaving, I chose a handful of overgrown plants to split and replant in my butterfly garden in front of the ranch house. We dug them up without much ceremony and loaded them into my truck alongside the tools I brought.
It was nearly dark by the time I made it home and began digging holes in the soft earth of my butterfly garden, the clayish soil mingling with llama manure compost, clinging to my hands and sticking underneath my fingernails. I listened to the nighttime things wake up around me. The owls. The crickets. The toads.
No sign of the city except for the tiny bit of light pollution that glows from the west.
Things will never be the same as they were during those years in my little house. I may never quite reclaim those same feelings of security, but that loss made space for other good things that I couldn’t have imagined then.
I sunk the roots of my plants into the space I made them, and I watered them almost to flooded, knowing that the next day would be hot, and that they would need a lot of care to establish themselves. They didn’t have the space they really needed in the little garden boxes, but in the butterfly garden, if they could make it past the trauma of the move to establish their roots, they would have plenty of room to grow.
I adore this blog, and this post in particular was pretty amazing.
(Image/wolfman570 – Flickr) They had a chance encounter on 5th Avenue in New York City.
The boy and the girl in the movie I was watching.
They were two old friends who crushed on one another growing up together in Texas. He was an aspiring novelist attending the University of Texas. She was going to Yale, after abandoning her childhood dreams of being a creative artist.
They reconnected over dinner and drinks, catching up from the years apart.
He was a dreamer. And his hope and optimism was contagious and inspiring. His belief in her and encouragement to chase her dreams moved her. It made her feel good. She was in love.
In a later scene, we see the young woman having dinner with her mother, where she reveals her plans to leave Yale, return to Texas to attend the University of Texas, and marry this boy from back…
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“So…There’s this horse…”
I was lying on my bed in the middle of the afternoon-a weekend in early May of 2016-feeling extraordinarily lazy, and watching my ceiling fan spin circles above me. I held my phone to my ear and listened as Jeremiah began to explain the plight of a unfortunate four-year-old desert bred Arabian gelding who had been injured in a pasture accident. The injury was deemed “career ending” for the young gelding, once an exceptionally promising and talented performance prospect, and the decision was made to put him down. He was three-legged lame, currently residing in a stall awaiting his appointment for euthanasia after x-rays revealed that he had torn much of the connective tissue in his lower right front leg. He only had a few days before the vet would be back out.
Through an unlikely chain of events (involving the horse’s previous owner, an unexpected shoeing appointment, and a brief conversation with the consulting vet), the gelding, named Phoenix, had made his way onto Jeremiah’s radar. Jeremiah had known Phoenix’s mother and was the farrier for Phoenix’s previous owner. He was just connected enough to the horse to be interested, and he started making phone calls to get to the bottom of the situation.
His conversation with the vet led to his conversation with me. He explained that Phoenix had an excellent shot to recover to pasture sound (pain free but unridable), a decent chance of recovering to trail sound (noncompetitively ridable), and a very, very slim chance of recovering to performance sound, but that, in any case, he would require a lot of time and a lot of money. His owners weren’t willing to make that sort of investment in an almost definitely noncompetitive horse with such an uncertain future.
“What do you think?” Jeremiah asked. “Should we bring him home?”
If you’ve been following this blog for any time at all, you will know quite well that sad creatures are my kryptonite. I have barely bought myself a new pair of jeans in the past four years, but my creatures are well-stocked with their own comforts. However, the fact is, as much as I would like to try, I cannot save them all. My resources are finite, and every animal requires hay and time and space. All of those things have their limits, even out here on 100 acres. I try to be very aware of those limits because at my core, the space in my heart drastically outdistances the space in my pastures or leeway in my pocketbook. That could get me in trouble really quickly. Not to mention, as you might guess given my last post on my divorce, Jeremiah and I weren’t on terribly solid footing ourselves just then…
I paused before responding. “It’s probably a terrible idea…and we might just be bringing the poor thing up here to euthanize in a few months if things don’t heal…”
“I know.” Jeremiah sounded resigned, another horse, especially an injured one, would be a huge responsibility to add to already chaotic and complicated lives.
“It’s good that we’re in agreement on that…” I inhaled deeply. “But I think we should do it anyway.”
I cannot save them all, but, as I’ve said before, sometimes you have to choose between logic and compassion. When pressed, choose compassion. Also, I believe in fate, and it seemed like this particular sad creature was supposed to cross our path. I steeled myself for a potential loss–I already knew there was a good chance we wouldn’t be able to save him–and started clearing a space in my barn for another sad animal.
Jeremiah spent the next week getting Phoenix set to travel while I got the barn ready to accommodate a seriously injured horse. Jeremiah shod his uninjured front hoof in a fancy set of composite shoes for extra support. We had a vet in Southern Illinois cast his injured leg, and we had radiographs and records sent to our vet up here. By the time he loaded onto our trailer to travel three hours North, he had already required a significant investment in vet bills and hoof work.
I had been sent a few photos of him, but when I agreed to take him in, it was sight unseen, so when he stepped off the trailer, I was surprised by a few things. First, Phoenix was stunningly beautiful, and TALL, much taller than I had expected given his Arabian Heritage. Second, with his lower limb in a cast, he was fairly ambulatory, not nearly as lame as I expected. (I had been under the impression that we were bringing home a half-dead horse with a slim chance of survival, but he was in far better shape than I had imagined.) Third, he was taking his trailer ride and new surroundings mostly in stride. He seemed nervous, but obliging. All of that was encouraging.
I got him settled in to an empty stall on the far edge of the barn and began a routine that we hoped would make him better. The vet came out regularly to administer Ozone Therapy. We found someone locally who could administer pulsed magnetic wave therapy. We tried to limit his movement, control his pain, and give him any sort of edge we could find to give him. He was underweight when he came, so in addition to hay, he was also fed grain twice daily.
I was basically already running the farm by myself at that point, with Jeremiah away for weeks at a time, so Phoenix and I spent a lot of time together, especially early on. I cleaned his stall; I fed him; I held him for his treatments; I kept him clean, and fed, and as happy as possible. I planned to remain somewhat distant with him, not wanting to get overly attached if we were to have to put him down, but he had one of those difficult to resist personalities. My sister-in-law took to calling him a “puppy horse” due to his tendency to follow us, demand attention, and cuddle. It wasn’t long before he wiggled his giant self right into my heart.
For several months, things went very well. Better than expected, in fact. The combination of treatments seemed to be working splendidly. Phoenix moved into his second cast without a hiccup, continuing his treatments each step of the way.
I started planning for his future with us.
Despite offers from a few of Jeremiah’s clients to take him once he was sound, I decided he would stay. As far as I was concerned, he would always be something of a time bomb for the wrong owner: High spirited and athletic but with potential for a re-injury. He was built like a jumper, and I was afraid that would be his undoing in the wrong hands. Also, if I’m being terribly honest, it bugged me a little that plenty of people wanted him sound, but no one else was willing to take the chance on him or spend the required money on him when his fate was uncertain.
And somewhere along the line, between my initial resolution to keep emotional distance from him and the day Jeremiah came home to remove his second cast twelve weeks later, I had unconsciously decided that he would get better. He had gone from being a anonymous horse we were going to try to save, but would likely have to euthanize, to a member of my herd with a future, his own personality, and a place in my heart.
He stood patiently as Jeremiah removed his cast. The leg underneath was atrophied from under-use, but we expected that. Jeremiah asked me to lead him away, and Phoenix followed me obligingly…completely unable to bear weight on his injured leg. I had so thoroughly convinced myself that Phoenix would be sound out of the cast that those first few steps shocked me to my core.
Jeremiah watched him walk and shook his head, lips pursed, brow furrowed. I had seen that look so many times, usually as he tried to decide how to tell a client that things didn’t look so good for their horse.
“Did we expect this?” I asked, hoping he knew something I didn’t.
“No,” he said simply. “But, maybe it will take him a few days to get used to it.”
I put Phoenix back in his stall. He settled in, refusing to put weight on his hoof but otherwise paying it no mind. I fed him, just as I had done every day since Jeremiah brought him home, and Jeremiah and I walked back down to the house.
Both of us were despondent, but I think I felt more defeated. The uncertainty, defeat, fear of loss–those emotions, that vulnerability–are the true cost of what I do out here. The sacrifice of time or of money is easy by comparison.
The next few days showed little improvement. Phoenix seemed happy enough, but seldom put any weight at all on his injured leg, hobbling around pathetically on three legs instead.
The vet needed to come out again; this time to x-ray the affected leg and determine where Phoenix was at. Had the leg been reinjured? Had the tears healed? Was he developing rapid early arthritis (a concern from the beginning)? I needed to know whether or not he was getting better and whether or not I could offer him a good quality of life.
I needed to know whether my baby boy–you know, the one I wouldn’t let myself get attached to–would make it.
The vet wasn’t able to come out for two more weeks. Jeremiah went off on another month long trip and I stayed, feeding Phoenix twice a day (along with everyone else), cleaning his stall, and studying his every movement, looking for improvement…hope…
When our vet’s farm truck rolled up two weeks later, my stomach was in knots. It had already been decided that we would only keep going with treatment if it was fair to the horse, and his state at that moment, still not walking on the injured leg with three months of rehab behind him, made me desperately afraid that I would have to schedule his euthanasia before Doc drove away that afternoon.
I brought Phoenix out of his stall, and he stood calmly as the vet went about his business. He was used to being poked and prodded by then.
The vet was able to pull the x-rays up on his laptop within minutes. He viewed them side-by-side with the x-rays of the initial injury.
“Oh, ok. These look good. See here? This is much better.”
That knot in my stomach melted, and tried to pay attention as Doc explained all the intricacies of the x-rays we were looking at, but all I could focus on was that Phoenix was better. Things would be ok. I could hardly believe that things would be ok.
I watched him drive away with a sense of relief. He wouldn’t be coming back to help me give a unrecoverable horse a kind end. Instead, Doc told me that the muscles had atrophied in the cast, that Phoenix needed time and space. Those things, I could give him.
I opened up his stall to a small run that day. I moved him into his own small pasture within about a month. Then, this Spring, I walked him down the lane and introduced him to the other horses, moving him into the big field where he could run and play to his heart’s content.
I watched the horses munching their hay tonight as the sun set behind us. Phoenix stood in the field with everyone else, sound and a true-blue member of the herd, and I breathed a sigh of relief, remembering again just how miraculous that was.
“No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just come out the other side. Or you don’t.”
~ Stephen King
My divorce, so long in the making, was final at the end of March. My cousin, Erin, came down for a long weekend and stayed to hold my hand in a mostly empty courtroom on a Monday morning while I answered questions from a bored-looking judge for five minutes so that he could declare my marriage dissolved. My ex didn’t come; in Illinois you don’t have to have both parties present to finalize a divorce, and I had decided that the whole thing would probably be easier if I didn’t have to face him.
Divorce is strange. It can be equal parts terrifying and debilitating and liberating. Even world-ending. It’s unexpected for some. It feels inevitable for others. The cutting of a cord. The removing of a limb. A decision that you make, but that feels as though it had been made without you. One that somehow feels equal parts devastating and hopeful.
It’s the end of something you never thought would end, and the beginning of something you never prepared for.
At least, that’s how it was for me.
Divorces seem to be like couples; each one of them is different
Two years ago, my ex began chasing madly after a career a thousand miles away. It seemed to make him happy in ways that his work here did not, so I encouraged it, and I sacrificed for it. My time, money, and all of my needs were placed on a chopping block of my own creation. I dutifully swung the ax without even questioning, because, after all, we were a team, and I was nothing if not a team player. Don’t get me wrong. He never demanded, or even asked for, such sacrifices. Honestly, he didn’t even know I was making them. I did that all on my own while he was away. I believed the sacrifices were temporary and in service to our relationship. My choice. My consequences.
At first, he left for two weeks a month…then a month at a time…then six weeks between every stop home. His priorities changed slowly at first, then seemingly all at once. Looking back, I can see that his heart left this place…and I suppose me…long before he did.
When my marriage began falling apart, I felt scared and alone and incapable of living my life. I went through stages where the farm felt like way too much. The animals felt like way too much. My job felt like way too much. It felt like I was treading water, barely keeping my head up, all the while watching the waves get rougher all around me.
Bills. Sick animals. Farm emergencies. Broken equipment. Collapsed ceilings from my then-leaking roof. None of them had seemed so impossible when I was part of a team, when I had the emotional support of someone equally invested in building this life with me, but they began to pile on as I dealt with one after another mostly on my own. There was so much to do. So much to learn.
The truth is, Jeremiah is an incredibly capable person with a laundry list of skills that he always made look easy and that I didn’t possess. He’s a gifted builder. He’s good with heavy equipment. And, damn, can he mend a fence and hang a gate! When he left, I lost the most meaningful relationship of my life, and I lost at least half of the expertise that had kept the farm running. The loss of the second made it difficult to find the emotional space to deal with the loss of the first. It was the proverbial double-whammy, and it made me feel like every piece of my life was coming undone at the seams.
Putting a life back together that has come apart at the seams is a slow task. Putting a heart back together that has come apart at the seams is an even slower task. I’m still working on both.
Here’s the thing I’m learning: if you tread water long enough–and just float when you need to–you eventually get strong enough to swim. People always say “it gets easier,” but when you’re facing a struggle, those words do you a disservice. I believe the truth of the matter is a little different. It doesn’t get easier; You get stronger
I’m not saying this in the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” so “stop being a pansy” and “rub some dirt in it” kind of way. Rather, it’s worth acknowledging that the character traits we tend to admire–grit, compassion, self-awareness–they all come from living through the days we spend in that uncharted, unexpected territory in our lives.
I’m starting to believe that life gives us the experiences required to make us who we want to become, and that becoming the person we want to be is the result of walking through those experiences with all the openness we can muster. You walk the “blue and lonely section of hell,” and if you let it, it will teach you.
This place, these animals, all of this work, and even the dissolution of the most significant relationship of my life…they are my teachers right now, and I’m discovering that it’s usually easier to let them teach me than it is to fight them on the lessons.
I am learning. Everyday, I am learning.
“There is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside of it.”
– George Elliot, Middlemarch.
It isn’t as warm as yesterday, but I cannot call it cold. As of morning chores, the thermometer was flirting with 50 degrees, unseasonably warm for Midwestern Februarys. Walking to the barn in just a sweatshirt is a rare treat. The day is overcast; my weather app tells me that it will drop back down into the 30s tomorrow.
The squirrels seems to be celebrating this momentary gift of warmth. I watch two of them flitting through the trees like little furry ninjas, taking aerial leaps from tree to tree, branch to branch, that I wouldn’t have thought possible. I can’t help but laugh aloud, pausing for several minutes to stand and watch them as they chitter back and forth, oblivious to my presence.
The horses, llamas, ponies, alpacas, chickens, and even barn cats are likewise “feeling their oats.” They all seems especially enthusiastic today; whether playing or eating or just napping in the sun, they are going about their business with a little bit of sunshine in their step. So am I.
It’s temporary; I know, but when February gives you light, you let that light in.
The day has been gray. The weather forecast warned me that rain is likely, but things are warm and dry as I go about most of my day, and I forget about the impending squall. The text from my mother warning me about the oncoming storm stops me in the middle of cooking dinner; I run to the barn, hoping to settle the animals in for the night before the thunderstorm makes it to the ranch. The storm begins to blow in as I run up the barn lane. My solitary set of winds chimes tolls a panicked warning; they ring out loud and angry and dissonant. The same wind rattles my aluminum gates in their hinges, creaking and crashing. The trees swayed back and forth, deep roots digging in against the front coming out of the west. I wonder briefly if any of them will fall.
Rain comes down cold and heavy on my shoulders as I roll open my barn doors and begin ticking chores off my list. Shut the barn cats inside their tack room. Shut the chickens into their coop.
Sirens begin blaring as I fill hay nets. That means that a tornado has been sighted in the county. I glance outside; the sky bares no tell-tale signs of a twister. The heavens are angry, to be sure, but dark gray, not green. The wind is frenzied. My Midwestern upbringing has taught me that the sky to worry about is a calm green one. I glance at my weather app and confirm that the touch down was on the other side of the county, miles and miles away. I make hasty work of the last few hay nets, and, comfortable that everyone is as well set to weather the storm as I can make them, I run back through the downpour to the comfort of the house.
The sounds of the storm wake me several times throughout the night. Hail pinging on a metal roof, thunder crashing in the distance, wind and rain railing against every corner of the house as the winds shift direction. I lie in bed and pray for my creatures, hoping they have the sense to go inside. Hoping that no trees fall and take down fences. Hoping no more twisters are born of this storm system. I fall back asleep as the rain continues down.
April showers are said to bring May flowers, but so far they are only bringing me mud. The two horses in the main barn have churned up their paddock so badly that I have ankle deep mud to contend with every time I have to get to the chicken coop. Of course, that’s inconvenient, but the bigger problem is the way they tend to slip around. I picture them falling, and worry that someone will get hurt…whether that someone would be one of them, or me, is yet to be seen. I decide to move them in with the other horses in the back pasture to keep all of us safer.
My world is wet and damp. The rain is unrelenting from the end of March through the first part of April. Everything is more difficult in the mud, from chores every morning to keeping my tile floors clean against the dogs’ muddy paws. The mud makes me irrationally angry every time I have to slog through it. There’s a crack in my rubber boots that lets cold, mucky water in when I step. I really need to replace those…
If I were to begin building an ark up here, high on the ridge above the Illinois River, no one would even blink. The animals barely step out of the barn, and they are as cranky as I am. The forecast says that the rain will end soon, but it feels like it will keep falling down forever.
The daffodils are up along the farm road. Yellow and bright against the new green grass that I’ve been waiting for. The sun is out, and the animals spend their time outside. They are decidedly happier than they have been in weeks. I still need to replace those boots, but the mud is no longer deep enough to seep in through the crack. Things are warming up, sprouting up, waking up, and coming to life all around me. The warm weather wakes me up too. Months of cold and damp and dark are coming to an end. I feel lighter. The anger from the mud is wearing off as things dry. Of course, the storms will still come–they always do–but when April give you light, you let that light in.
Let me be crystal clear: I didn’t NEED any more chickens. Cluckingham Palace is currently home to 11 laying chickens, 1 lavender turkey hen, and, of course, Arthur of Camelot. I currently collect more eggs than I can personally use, and I’ve been pretty open about the fact that eggs cost more to raise than to buy.
I know all of these things, but I have a mild case of chicken math disorder…which is basically a psychological disorder, and every Spring I seem to manage to fill up a brooder. There are some very reasonable arguments for doing so. (Chickens lay fewer eggs as they age. If you free-range, it is understood that you will lose an occasional hen to predators, etc.) But, when you get right down to it, I know that the real reason I keep buying chickens is that I like having chickens hanging around and that itty-bitty chicks are basically the cutest things ever in the history of all time; all of the other reasons are ancillary.
I had debated ordering chicks from mypetchicken again this year–I’ve been wanting a few rare breeds for several years that I know I can get through a hatchery order–but all of that went out the window when I walked into my feed store and realized that they had ordered in more than a dozen different types of chick this year.
You see, as it turns out, I have no real self-control. Though I admirably resisted all of the cute, little fluffy-butts the first time I saw them, it couldn’t last. A couple of weeks later, I made the mistake of going in to pick up feed while I was having a bad day; I left the store with two chick crates (10 chicks).
Chicks require special care for about a month and a half. It usually takes about six weeks for chicks to lose the fluff and grow their adult feathers. Until then, they have to live away from the other chickens and be kept warm and safe. For my chicks, that means living in my basement for at least that first six weeks. I settled my new chick-kids into their brooder that afternoon with lots of food, clean water, bedding, and appropriate heat lamps.
I don’t worry much about my adult chickens. Though I have an occasional issue–and I’m lucky enough to have a vet who will treat poultry–chickens tend to be pretty hardy. Chicks are another matter entirely. They are sensitive to heat, cold, changes in food, and stress. Issues can arise pretty quickly, and they can be hard to successfully treat. So, when I found one of my chicks acting lethargic about a day and a half later, I didn’t waste time.
It was already late when I found little one, but, despite the hour, I picked her up out of the brooder and took her upstairs with me. She had “pasty butt” which can be a symptom of a bigger issue or the issue itself, so I cleaned her up, offered her some water, and tucked her into my shirt so I could keep her warm and keep an eye on her at the same time. I didn’t want put her back in the brooder for fear that the other chicks would pick on her (it’s common for them to pick on sick birds), so I held her next to me, occasionally dipping her beak in water so she could drink and hoping she would take a turn for the better.
The two of us watched Netflix until I almost couldn’t keep my eyes open, and at three am, I put her back in her brooder, a small towel around her to give her some space from the other chicks.
The next morning, I awoke groggy and later than usual, but I went downstairs to check on my little one first thing. She was still hanging on, but had pasted over again. I picked her up, brought her upstairs, and cleaned her up again. Then she and I settled into my couch for the morning.
I would read between offering her water or food.
She would occasionally perk up. The cats would act incredulous that I had a chick on their couch.
I called off work to stay with her, and I spent the morning with her, letting her bask in the sunlight. I took a quick break from my reading and her basking to attend to my barn, but beyond that, I held her for most of the day.
That evening, I asked my sister to come over to “chick sit” so I could do my second round of barn chores. God bless her, she came and sat on my bed holding a baby chicken for about an hour while I took care of things outside. By then I wasn’t optimistic about the little one’s chances, but I didn’t want her to be alone.
Little one passed that evening. She was warm and safe. She hadn’t been picked on by the other chicks. She hadn’t died of dehydration. She had known what it was like to bask in the sunshine.
You get used to losing animals when you do what I do. Or, rather, maybe you don’t entirely get used to it, but you learn to accept it. With little one, I had honestly resigned myself to losing her fairly early on–I knew pretty well what was coming–but I had made the decision to keep holding her and to keep trying anyway, because it was the right thing to do, and I believe that matters.
In my mind, kindness matters. It matters no matter how loud or how quiet it is. Kindness matters every time it’s given, whether to a person or a stray dog or a dying chick. And it matters even when it doesn’t make a “real” difference in how things turn out.
The fact that little one knew what it was like to bask in the sunshine matters. I really believe that. I think that every good thing makes the world a better place. Every act of kindness, no matter how very, very small, no matter how insignificant it may seem, makes the world a little kinder.
In a world where you can be anything, please be kind.