I was cleaning my third to last stall of the night, the one where my mamas and babies live, when a text came through. I paused to read it and took a moment to pause… More
I sat down last weekend and made my Christmas lists. Christmas shopping. Christmas goals. Taking some inspiration from a blogger I follow–Karen at The Art of Doing Stuff–I decided that this year, I want to have my holiday obligations (the shopping, the wrapping, the decorating, etc) out of the way by the end of November, leaving December wide open for less-stress celebrations and evenings enjoying the season in front of a nice fire.
This year, I will be organized and intentional, and I WILL NOT be wrapping the last of my gifts on Christmas day before we load the car…again. I refuse.
Maybe it was the early first snow that kicked my butt into gear. Maybe it was Karen’s email about her Christmas pledge. Maybe it was the fact that my furnace chose the evening of our first snow to take a shit, reminding me very clearly and viscerally of what cold and winter feel like.
Maybe it was a combination of the three.
Either way, Winter, I’m here with you. To-do lists in hand. Continue reading “Winter, Christmas, and All of the Lists”
It’s after 8:00; I’m still in bed, under covers, and I’ve only REALLY been awake for about 15 minutes. Over and over, I have to explain this. I don’t do early mornings unless I have to, and on weekends, I don’t have to.
People who hear about the ranch always assume that I’m up before dawn. They expect, I suppose, that I am out by the sunrise, scattering chicken feed from the pockets of an apron that I would assumedly be wearing while singing “The Hills are Alive” from The Sound of Music.
My sweet spot is between 7:00 and 8:00. Which is why I’m still not quite out of bed when John comes back in with coffee.
John is almost always awake first. His job, as a process engineer for a company about an hour and a half from here, requires that his ass be at his desk by 7 am. His internal clock is set differently than mine.
He makes coffee for us on the weekends.
Really good coffee.
I’m keeping him.
He offers me my coffee cup. I stretch. Sit up. Take the cup.
“Good morning, gorgeous.”
This is my wake-up every morning that we wake up in the same space. It’s less often than we’d like since he still lives and works over 100 miles away. The distance, which both of us coming off of bad break-ups had initially found so comforting, is starting to get old.
I take a sip of the coffee. It’s hot and delicious. Fresh ground. Just a hint of cream. No sugar.
The day, we both know, will be long, so coffee is slow.
It’s already hot outside when we finally make it to the barn. Truthfully, wiser ranchers and farmers start chores earlier than me to beat the heat. I trade in 5 to 10 degrees of comfort for an extra hour or two in bed. We all make choices.
I start cleaning stalls while John fills hay nets. These are the daily chores, along with collecting eggs and feeding chickens, letting the cats out of their room, and making sure the horses have food (either hay or pasture). Weekends are usually full of stuff that doesn’t make the day-to-day and this one is no exception.
Cinco is so easy to catch. Basically, you want up to him and ask politely. He stands still while you slip a halter on and walks with you maintaining respectable distance. I bring him into the center of the barn and hand him to John, and head into my feed room to grab my hoof trimming tools.
That’s a thing I do now. I never budgeted hoof care into the equation when I brought all of these guys home. That may seem shortsighted, except that I was married to a farrier (a horse shoer/trimmer) at the time, and I hadn’t planned for the marriage to spectacularly fail. After it did, I was left with the choice of learning how to trim my own horses or getting rid of them, because there was definitely not room in the budget for a good farrier, and the idea of having my ex out to the ranch every six weeks made me feel ill for quite a while..
That brings me here, with Cinco and John. (On a related note, I’m pretty sure John never saw himself holding horses for trimming either…Life does not always take us where we expect.)
Trimming hooves can be a little bit like performing surgery. The hoof is complicated, a live piece of their body, and it’s important to understand the anatomy before cutting into it. Fortunately, I was already fairly well-versed in that before I ever picked up a nipper. (It’s a side effect of travelling with and listening to a farrier for hundreds and hundreds of hours.)
The actual work though? All the book knowledge in the world didn’t make it easier to cut into a hoof for the first time. I knew enough to know just how much I could fuck things up (though my other horsey friends pointed out that one mildly bad trim wasn’t going to do too much damage).
My first trim was of my friend Lauren’s horse with her husband’s supervision. Then my horses with Lauren’s help and supervision. Now it’s my horses with my supervision (and an occasional Facetime session with Lauren and her husband).
Since those first few experiences, there have been a lot of “good enough” trims. Not perfect. Not exactly what I was looking for, but functional, especially for my herd of horses who are rarely ridden and who are never worked particularly hard. But this one? By the time I came to the end of the trim, even I thought it looked pretty damn good.
Of course, there was blood. Not Cinco’s. Mine. I rarely remember gloves when I first start a trim, and I have a nasty habit of hitting my knuckles with the rasp. A blood sacrifice to the equine gods, I suppose.
Noonish: (Trims take me a while)
I wiped the drips of blood off my hands, and lead Cinco down the lane to the backyard. Typically it’s where I keep the dogs, but the grass is high, and I don’t much feel like mowing. I watch Cinco as we walk down the drive, and I’m pleased with how he’s moving. The trim will serve.
He is nervous at first until we catch and bring the other horses down to join him. Any nervousness at being in a new field is overshadowed by the security of being with the whole herd and the joy of being in a fresh field with more grass than they can eat.
I have work to do in the garden. (Occasionally, while I pull the weeds that I never have quite been able to keep up with, it occurs to me that I can buy groceries…)
I have errands to run. (There’s a gardening tool at Lowe’s that I feel I must have but that it turns out I will barely use after tomorrow.)
I need to deworm the cat. The baby llama needs a shot. The hay nets are empty and need to be refilled.
When was the last time I watered the flowers on the porch?
Before the day is over, I take two showers, sweating through my barn clothes twice. (My mom wonders sometimes why I have to do so much laundry…this is it.) We settle down after evening chores just in time to see some friends pull up the driveway. They meet the new baby llama.
They pet the critters who come up to greet them.
We settle in for conversation and wine and some fresh popcorn.
There’s one more day in the weekend. One more slow morning with delicious coffee. On Monday, mornings speed up. John will leave just before 5am. I will do the chores that must be done before heading to work myself.
The rest will wait until the weekend comes around again.
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 underneath to the cool breeze. He made the job easy, which maybe why I chose to shear him in my first group.
He seemed happy with his new haircut when I finished, wandering off to enjoy the pasture with the other llamas immediately afterwords. I watched him walk away and shook my head. He had gotten skinny over the winter. Really skinny. I knew that he had lost weight, but the depth and breadth of it hadn’t been entirely clear until I removed his wool.
Kniggett had been a surprise. His sire decided to jump a fence between himself and the girls, and Kniggett showed up 11 months later with red wool like his mom and an impish face like his dad. He was named “Kiley’s Kniggett” after his mom, Kiley, and as an homage to Monty Python’s “Silly English Kniggetts” (Knights) from “The Search for the Holy Grail.” He was one of the sweetest llamas ever born out here: a perpetual favorite, always asking for neck skritches from his people and saying hello to newcomers.
You love them all, of course. When you do what I do, have creatures like I do, you love them all. But some, a few, dig their way just a little bit deeper into your heart. Theirs are the faces you look for in the morning. The hellos you always say. The ones you unintentionally spoil just a little bit extra.
Wednesday, when I drove to work, he was in the dust bath in the front pasture, enjoying a good roll.
Wednesday, when I got home from work, he was still there, but now laying at an odd angle, completely unmoving. I got out of the car as fast as I could and ran into the pasture. I called for him, even though I could tell that he was already gone.
Sometimes, when those animals who have dug their way just a little bit deeper into your heart leave you, it’s as though they’ve taken a piece of you with them.
I don’t cry over all of them at this point. Maybe it’s just the sheer volume of loss I have felt out here. Maybe it’s a deeper appreciation that it’s what I do for them while they’re living that matters and that death is just the next part of a life. Maybe I’m getting hard.
But I don’t cry over all of them.
I cried over Kniggett.
I cried a lot over Kniggett.
I gave myself a little bit of space the next morning. My first chore had come at 7AM when I had to meet the companion cremation guy at my barn and load Kniggett into his truck with my skid steer, and it didn’t entirely sit well with me. I didn’t need the reminder that he was gone before sitting down for coffee. I went back to the house after that; I needed a minute.
When I went back to the barn later to do my usual morning chores, I was feeling a little worn. All of my llamas were inside, a definite reminder of the one that was not.
I was cleaning up my main herd’s stall when I realized that I was missing someone. Not Kniggett, though I missed him terribly, but Reva.
When I first took over the ranch, I was given Reva and her sister, Baby, by some clients of my ex who didn’t want them anymore. As of Thursday morning, she was still unshorn, and when I realized she was out alone while the entire herd was inside–not normal behavior for most llamas–I panicked.
“No, no, no” I thought, putting down my barn tools and heading out towards the back pastures in search of her.
Visions of her stretched out with heat stress, unable to move and laboring to breathe flashed through me. I didn’t pause to consider the fact that she was only a medium wooled animal, and that it wasn’t actually that hot out…
I saw her once I walked past the pine trees, she was to my left, munching on some grass and standing in the shade.
I breathed a sigh of relief before doing a double take.
It wasn’t just her.
It took me a moment to realize that she wasn’t alone, that a baby was next to her, alert and watching me back.
After making sure that they were both ok, I walked back to the barn to get a halter for Reva so I could bring the pair in. As best as I could tell, the little one had been born the afternoon before or very early that morning, coming into the world on the heels of Kniggett leaving it.
His surprise entrace reminded me of Kniggett’s. He wasn’t unplanned, since I did intentional expose Reva and Baby to our stud last year, but I hadn’t thought Reva caught, and, even to the small degree that I considered it, I had the dates all wrong.
I made them a stall. I gave Reva a bucket full of grain and corn. I spent my day assuring myself that the baby, a little boy, was healthy, nursing, and strong. The pair of them joined back in with the herd that evening, and it became clear that this little guy had an attitude.
What he didn’t have was a name.
Nothing was fitting. I wanted to play on Sky, his sire’s name, which gave me a number of directions to try out, but nothing clicked.
Two days later, John and I were texting names back and forth, rapid fire. He eventually commented that the names I came up with sounded like something off of Game of Thrones and responded in kind.
But then the next one.
“Skye’s Starry Knight…”
It was just one more in the list, but it literally stopped me in my tracks.
Of course he’s a Knight. Like Kniggett. Of course he is.
Once I saw it, it was just so obvious.
“That one,” I replied.
“With or without the K?”
The “K” had been a typo, one that stopped me cold and brought tears to my eyes. A reminder that this little life had been ushered in on the tail end of another. A Starry Knight and a silly English Kniggett.
John was surprised by how well the name landed; he’s still riding the “I named the baby llama” high.
I find myself believing more and more that life is just a series of lessons. That the job of living is to learn and become better. And this place? This life I’ve chosen that is so wrapped up in this home I’m living it in? It seems to be a lesson in planning and unplanning and accidents.
I’ve said before that I’m a planner. Maybe a little bit of a control freak. And I chose a life that, maybe even more than others, cannot be controlled.
This life teaches me that plans are fine and so is throwing them out the window. Accidents, like Kniggett, like the K in Starry Knight, are sometimes the very best parts of life.
Or, maybe, accidents, like Kniggett, like the K in Starry Knight, aren’t really accidents at all, just more of the lesson.
I’m still curled up in bed, asleep enough to be dreaming, when the phone goes off. I don’t check it, letting the caller go to voicemail. I snuggle back into the sheets for a moment before thinking that I should at least look to see who it was.
If I’m getting a 7:29 am phone call from the neighbor who I’ve always had in my phone as “bad pony,” it’s probably because I have some bad ponies…
I roll over and begin to sit up.
“I think the ponies got out,” I tell John.
The first time this happened with John, when I got a call that the horses broke loose from their pasture well before dawn in the middle of winter– this was early in our dating life–John moved like molasses, a lot of “what” and “huh” as I shot out of bed. Now, more than a year and a half in, he beat me to the window.
“Can you see them?” I ask.
“Yeah…” He pauses before replying, “They just ran down the driveway.”
John watches as they run up the hill towards the neighbors, tiny tails bopping joyfully as they trot to freedom.
(98 acres out here, and those tiny monsters just want to eat my neighbor’s front lawn.)
We left them in a temporary pen overnight, letting them graze and enjoy the cool evening, but apparently they got bored at some point and pushed a gate away from the fence.
Guys, letting miniature ponies get bored is like feeding gremlins after midnight. JUST DON’T FUCKING DO IT.
I pull on the official uniform of “my livestock escaped before I got out of bed”: yesterday’s jeans, a gray tank top with no bra, flip-flops, and a baseball cap. John, apparently competing for the redneck hall of fame, pulls on dirty jeans and muckboots. He decides to forgo his shirt entirely, showing off the beginnings of a notable farmer’s tan.
I know it seems unlikely, but the ranch really is part of a very nice neighborhood, probably the nicest one in town. I am just at the edge of it, but the real estate around me is not the sort that you would expect to host rogue ponies, or horses, or llamas. However, at some point or another, I have chased each species through a neighbor’s yard. Behind the ranch, I am surrounded by farmers and country people, the sort that just happen to have old horse halters hiding in a barn somewhere that they grab when someone else’s horse (read: mine) shows up in their front yard. But next to the ranch? I have genteel city people who moved out-of-town to appreciate the peace and quiet.
Fortunately, these particular city people think I am an amusing novelty and that ponies are cute.
I think that I have four ponies and that there are supposed to be four horsemen of the apocalypse. (Or alpacalypse… maybe llamageddon…) As I walk up my driveway and see the ponies looking at me wearily from the top of the hill, I think that those apocalyptic horses probably won’t look like people expect.
Immediately across the road, my neighbor rents out his massive colonial-style home as an AirB&B. This weekend’s renters chatted with my boyfriend as he tried to flank my four tiniest horses.
“We just woke up,” they told him from the driveway, “and there were tiny horses running down the road. It was so cute!”
John’s presence sends Violet, Slash, Gem, and Cody running back into my yard, the temporary neighbors looking on with amusement. They would have a story to tell about their vacation rental in the country.
“Just don’t let them go back up the road,” I tell him.
“No kidding,” he replies.
Two laps of the front yard, one detour to the big horses’ barn, and an almost-trek through the manure pit in flip-flops to head them off later, the ponies run back into their pasture, seemingly at least a little confused about how they got there.
Such, I suppose, is life with livestock.
Ponies tucked safely away, John and I walk back to the house together. He makes coffee–he makes really good coffee–and we sit on the couch until our cups run low and the barn calls us back out to finish morning chores. The rest of the day will come soon enough, bringing with it more work than either of us woke up with any intention of completing, but for a moment, we sit back and appreciate the momentary, and elusive, peace and quiet of the country.
I really need to learn my neighbor’s name…
“Don’t let it be too long before you call again, honey.”
“I won’t. Love you, Nana. Have a good night.”
“Love you too, darlin.'”
We hadn’t talked very long. She was tired. She had been tired a lot lately. The past few years had seen her in and out of the hospital with more regularity. Last fall, she had given my sister and I each one of her gold rings.
“Just in case something happened,” she told us. “I just want you to have it.”
It’s tucked in my jewelry box now; I forgot to wear it to the funeral. And I waited too long to call.
In the past six weeks, I have been at one deathbed. Two funerals.
Dressed in black and disconnected from what was in front of me.
Watching my aunt receive condolences on the death of her husband. Giving condolences that don’t feel deep or wide enough to communicate my sympathies.
Watching my sister collapse in tears on the side of my Nana’s casket. Fighting the urge to do the same.
One week earlier I had stood with my sister beside Nana’s bed. They were “keeping her comfortable” then, and I knew it was only a matter of time, but there was a little part of me hoping. She had rallied before, hadn’t she? Maybe, just maybe, she would rally again. Maybe, like before, I would hear her again, talking about how “that was a close one, honey.”
Nana wasn’t my biological grandmother. She had been one of my mother’s closest friends, despite being old enough to be her mother. When my mom got married and had kids (my older sister and then myself), Nana moved in to help raise us. She lived with us until I was eleven.
Nana helped us with our homework. She cooked our birthday dinners. She was there for doctor appointments, school plays, t-ball games, holidays, vacations, chicken pox, every bout of the flu, riding lessons…everything. I cannot untangle my childhood from Nana.
I wouldn’t want to.
When I was about seven, she started using the family YMCA membership to walk the track in the early morning. I got it in my head that I would go with her. We would wake up at six am and walk the raised track. Me, seven years old with white-blonde, pony-tailed hair, wearing my swishy 90s track suit, power-walking with Nana and the other gray-haired retirees.
We usually went out for a donut afterwords.
Nana always included us if we wanted to be included. My sister and I would travel with her to visit her mother in Indianapolis whenever she went there. She showed me how to dead head petunias when I wanted to help in the garden. She let me help make egg noodles in the kitchen…until I stole too many, earned a slap on the wrist and a “Now, you just get out of here and let me finish!”
Once, she came along with me to see a new X-Men film…She was well into her 70s at the time with zero interest in superheros or comics, but she ate popcorn and sat beside me just because I wanted to go.
She taught me from the very beginning that family didn’t need to share blood.
My sister and I stood on either side of her bed. It was a Saturday. She wasn’t conscious, but they told us she could hear us. So, we talked.
We said thank you. We sang “Bushel and a Peck” the way we used to when we were little.
I don’t think I actually said goodbye. I didn’t want to. I just said thank you, and I love you. And then I thought it–thank you, I love you–when the words stopped coming.
This winter, I visited her in the hospital with John. She hadn’t met him before, but she knew his name when he came in with me. I was surprised; I hadn’t been hearing good things about her memory.
She sat in her hospital chair, connected to wires and drips and oxygen, and she looked him up and down with an eagle eye.
“You’re a good looking man,” she proclaimed.
“Well, thank you, Nana.” he replied.
We sat with her and visited for a few hours. She never lost track of who I was, or who John was, but she kept losing her place, asking when her daughter would be home, wondering where the dog was.
When John left to go to the bathroom, she informed me that she would “kick his ass” if he ever hurt me. Then she asked if we were going to get married. Then she told me that she would kick my ex-husband’s ass if she could just get a hold of him.
My sister called me on Monday morning. Nana was gone.
My dad had stopped my house that morning, and I collapsed against him, sobbing. He stayed until I steadied. I walked into the house, sat on my kitchen floor, and listened to Doris Day sing “A Bushel and A Peck” on repeat.
What do you do when part of your world disappears? When the sun has the audacity to keep shining as though a great light hadn’t gone out? How dare the universe keep expanding, the earth keep spinning, wind keep blowing? How is it that the flowers outside my window had bloomed that morning?
Tuesday night, the flu hit me like a semi-truck, proof that viruses don’t give one single fuck what you’re going through emotionally.
Fever. Chills. Coughing. Sore throat. Headache.
My dad started watching the animals. I couldn’t get out of bed.
An old friend from high school reached out to me, asking me how I was. I told her that I was having a hard time processing, that I couldn’t quite make it past the physical fever to reach the emotional pain.
She understood. When her grandmother had died, she’d come down with a wretched case of shingles, lending her to that same feeling.
“It doesn’t really feel like she’s gone,” I told her.
“I know what you mean,” she replied. “Sometimes it feels like they took a trip and just can’t get a phone signal.”
The morning of Nana’s funeral, I got a call from my nearest neighbor.
“Hi, Cherity. It’s Connie, from next door? I just…I think one of your llamas is dead. I mean, I know it’s dead. We can see it from the house. The vultures are after it. I wasn’t sure if you knew. I thought you’d want to know.”
Of course. Of course there’s a dead animal in my pasture. …This is how animal sanctuaries wind up getting animal control called on them.
I pulled on sweats and walked out to the back pasture along my neighbor’s property. It was the most I had moved in almost a week. Sure enough, a dead alpaca was laid out in the middle of the field. I got close enough to see the vultures. To realize that they had opened her up past her rib cage. I have a soft spot for vultures, and I didn’t blame them or harbor ill will. They were doing their job.
From where she was and what I know of llamas and alpacas, I’m guessing she went down quickly, probably a heart attack. From what I know of vultures, I’m guessing she had been there a day or two.
My dad and boyfriend both do a great job of taking care of everyone out here, but neither of them know the animals well enough to notice if one of them hasn’t been in. Between losing Nana and coming down with the flu, I had missed her absence.
I went to the funeral, convinced I was getting better. Pastors stood at a pulpit and talked about a generic version of a woman who I loved deeply. It didn’t seem right.
I wanted to stand up and talk about the stories that made her laugh. I wanted to talk about the fried green tomatoes I still can’t quite make like she did. About the time she went up in a helicopter with me over the Badlands on vacation when I was little because I wouldn’t go up with anyone else. Stories and memories bubbled up within while they talked about how much she enjoyed Bible study and going to church. How she played baseball in high school. It seemed like they missed her to me, but maybe that was just to me.
The next day, my abating flu was back with a vengeance. Six days later, I was diagnosed with pneumonia.
It’s getting better now. I’m moving slow, but recovering. Working in small doses. Taking it one day at a time.
I’m taking a lot of things one day at a time.
I drank the last of my Greek Ouzo the night of the funeral, toasting to Nana. John and I watched Pixar’s “Coco.” I thought a lot about the memories we keep of the people and animals we love. I thought about the way they come with us as the world continues to turn. The way we wear their love in our bodies. Love is never wasted; it is handed off like a baton from one person to the next as we walk through our lives, not diminishing in the passing, but burning brighter as it moves from one to the next. The sun has the audacity to keep shining because, even though it might feel like it, the light we feel like we’re missing isn’t actually lost. It’s just been passed along.
Nana handed me a lot of love. It’s my job to make sure it burns bright.
“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.