I just found hay in my hair, a memento from the time I spent in the horse field this afternoon lying on my back in what remained of a round bale. It’s sixty degrees. Just a few days ago, there was snow on the ground. Spring is like that here.
(Not unlike my hair now that I think about it.)
But back to the hay bale. I buy hay in 1200 lb bales to feed my horses. The bales are tall and round. I cover them with impossibly large nets that hold the bale together as horses slowly eat it down. The bales are made for eating, but sometimes I sit in them instead. Today, home early after having been haunted by the ghost of a migraine, I wandered out in the warm air and and made myself comfortable in the hay.
I am like a barometer, at least according to my chiropractor who has to adjust away the headaches I wake up with every time the barometric pressure swings wildly. A migraine crept in during the first part of this swing two days ago; I could barely walk without the urge to be sick. For the past two days, it’s lingered, just at the edge of my awareness, just enough there to make me fearful that it will crash back down on me the moment I feel comfortable. I wore sunglasses at the office today, and left as soon as I had the opportunity, anxious to be away from the buzz of the fluorescent lights and the glare of my computer screen. I drove myself home, walked up the lane to the horse field, and laid down in the hay.
I closed my eyes, listening to the breeze and the birds, enveloped in the smell of sweet grass hay, a smell that always seems to bring me back to my childhood. A few of the horses came up, and I kept a wary eye on them in case they set their mind upon mischief, but instead, they nuzzled and blew their warm breath onto my forehead, checking to see if I had shrunk I suppose, or reassuring themselves that it was me even when I laid down.
There is something about the change of the seasons here on the ranch that always seems to bring me back to myself, reawaken pieces of me that sleep for a time. In the winter, we rest. The farm. The animals. Me. Our numbers are fewer from the autumn migrations that call our wild, summer residents away. I buckle down, bundle up, and steel my mind to keeping all of us alive through the cold. Water unfrozen. Animals bundled in blankets or locked into barns as necessary. Everyone well-fed…maybe even overfed. And, at the same time, I also relax, putting projects on hold, contenting myself to spend cold nights cuddled up under blankets next to the fire.
When the Spring comes, I watch as all of us wake up. I’m called to the outside. I sit and listen to the birds with my morning coffee. (Sometimes I think that I should learn to identify them by song, a “get to know your neighbors” kind of thing.) I watch our bluebirds come home, and I wait anxiously for the first butterfly. There is a gentleness to it, but the to-do list seems to grow daily. Shearing, hoof trimming, vaccines–not to mention pasture clean-up, barn cleaning, and mowing–are about to be upon me.
From my spot in the hay, I couldn’t help but notice that the horses need a thorough grooming; they are blowing their winter coat, leaving the season behind them. They remind me that transitions can be messy, but that there’s a loveliness in the mess, if you’re willing to see it. The mess with always be there somehow; there’s always going to be a new thing to take of, another item on the never ending list. But sometimes, in the moments between the winter and spring, all you need do is close you eyes, listen, and breathe in the sweet smell that come along as things change.
I’ve started this blog post three times. Each time, Amelia, one of my three dogs, shoves her nose under my elbow and nudges my arm, asking for attention. Each time, my fingers lose their space on the keyboard; I backspace and start over. One of those times, my puppy, Rose, joins in, but in her poor “puppy” form, she makes the mistake of grabbing my hand in her mouth (albeit gently), resulting in a reprimand.
They give up, bored, and curl up on their beds across the room. I’m granted a moment to myself, and I keep typing.
This week, I forgot two loads of laundry in my washer…for four days. The chicken coop needs to be cleaned. My dogs have smelled “wet” for longer than I care to remember…because everything outside has been wet for over a week. Hay nets need to be filled tomorrow. I cannot keep the floor clean of paw prints. I have piles of grading to work through. And, just for shits and giggles, one of my horses injured himself on Friday, resulting in a day off of work waiting on the emergency vet.
I’d say things are crazy right now, but in my experience, this is sort of just how life works. You get behind; you catch up. You get your shit together; something unexpected happens. I guess that means that crazy is normal…or normal is crazy? Or there is no such thing as normal at all?
I’ve read books about having “balance” in life. It’s such a fantastic idea: this juggling of priorities and responsibilities so that you’re always on top of things. The ringmaster of your life.
But has anyone else noticed that the idea of “balance” usually comes hand-in-hand with an undue number of circus metaphors? Anyone else think that’s maybe because it’s an idea that is playing at a fantasy?
My life feels like a circus sometimes, but not a well-managed, three ring circus… a shady roadside circus. The animals aren’t behaving; the fire is getting a little too close to the tent, and the clowns don’t all fit in the car…and who the fuck let all of those creepy clowns in here anyway?
Sometimes though, my life feels maybe a bit more like a petting zoo. The creatures are running things. I am getting low on hay, and I need to clean the stalls. And someone left a gate open. Actually, that one isn’t a so much a metaphor…
In the past week, three of my friends have told me about their respective circuses. Their lack of balance. Their feelings of guilt and shame for not being the perfect ringmaster. They worry that they aren’t “enough”: enough parent, enough partner, enough employee, enough friend. One felt guilty that her time at the gym took time away from her kids. One felt like time for herself took excessive time from her relationship. One felt that her time at work wasn’t enough, that she should be spending time outside of office hours attending work functions. One of my friends even voiced concern that she “didn’t bake enough and that she probably should.”
I listened to each of them, and I said all of the right, true things. “You can’t take care of anyone or anything else if you don’t take care of yourself.” “You are being too hard on yourself.” “You are doing great.” These are things I have to tell myself ALL THE TIME, so I’m getting good at saying them. One day, I might even get good at hearing them.
Over the last few years, I’ve added a mantra to my ever-lengthening list of mantras. I’m beginning to think that it might be the secret to life: “The stalls won’t always be clean…and that’s ok.”
Maybe you have stalls (in which case it works on two levels) or maybe you don’t. But what I mean is this: things will never be perfect, and the list of things to do will never be completely done. Try as you might, you’re never going to get all of your figurative (or literal) shit cleaned up. And things are probably going to be fine anyway.
I should have graded papers on Sunday, but I went to spend time with a friend and her kids instead. We made cookie bars. I let her eight year old crack the egg for the batter. We sat on the floor eating warm cookie bars with chocolate ice cream while that same eight year old serenaded us with “Fight Song,” and her mama and I sipped limoncello-spiked, mango-lemonade. I wasted time…balance and priorities and juggling be damned. I laughed. I smiled. I gave myself a break and accepted that some papers were going ungraded for now…oh, and I didn’t clean my stalls up, either.
It was good enough. I was good enough.
Embrace the circus, honey. We all have one, and those clowns aren’t listening to anyone.
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. Before college. After college. Before and after your first job. Births. Deaths. We, all of us, all our lives, are just a mess of befores and afters and how they changed us from one version of ourselves to the next. We have ceremonies to celebrate or mourn the changes. Matriculation. Funerals. Christenings.
Sometimes, even though one day you’re a person of before and the next day a person of after, it feels like little has changed. Some befores and afters fade into one another like the colors of the sunset meld from one to the next, and suddenly the sky has gone from blue to orange to purple without you noticing. The easy changes are like that. You don’t realize things are changing until they have, and then, before you know it, you’ve made your way from a before to an after.
Other changes fall like a sledgehammer. No matter the slope into it, no matter the warning or preparation, the change will always be abrupt.
Hopefully followed by rebirth.
For me, 2017 was a sledgehammer year.
2017 felt like falling off the edge of the world. Tumbling into the unknown with no way of catching myself and hoping against hope that I would manage to find some yet unknown footing. And it wasn’t just the divorce, though that was a large part of it. It was losing all faith in the person who I used to consider my best friend. Honestly, before I found out about his affair, if I had been asked whether I had more faith in him, or in the sun’s rising in the east and setting in the west, I would have, without a moment’s hesitation, said him. But after? I felt worthless, thrown away by the person who had promised to love me no matter what.
When my marriage fell away, I realized that I had defined myself by my relationship and that I didn’t entirely remember who I was outside of it. And I was so numb that, for quite a while, I couldn’t figure out what to do to fix that.
2017 was a lost and found year.
When my life fell to pieces, I really thought that I was destined to live a half-life. I couldn’t imagine my world without my ex. I couldn’t imagine being happy again. I know that it sounds crazy, but for a long while there, it seemed like joy was a thing of my past.
I lost who I had been. I lost who he and I had been together. I lost the person I had depended upon the most.
But then, hidden in the wreckage of my life, cowering and lost, I found myself again.
I was surprised to learn that you can always find your way back to you.
2017 was my year of Women Reading Aloud. (Yes, Julie, I’m talking about you.)
The series of events that brought me to the South of France this August, sitting in a room full of lovely, beautiful, talented writers, is complex and uncanny. It was almost an accident. It was almost intentional. I almost didn’t go, feeling almost too heartbroken to function. But, somehow, the universe brought me to a little retreat, near a little town, that I almost couldn’t find on a map. Weirdly, I started to find pieces of myself in a place that I had never been with people who I had never met.
After that, I started to find pieces of myself all over. My friends and family helped remind me of who I had always been. My creatures reminded me of what I had always done. My half-life grew, and it was as though those people and places and creatures dearest to me had been holding pieces of me for safe-keeping: pieces I had forgotten about. Pieces that they handed back once I was ready to begin putting myself back together.
The thing about befores and afters is that they never really leave you. Rather, they change you. If you let them, they can change you for the better, even as you mourn what you lost.
I was recently sent a message by an old college friend who reached out to me, asking what she could do to help someone who had recently discovered their spouse was having an affair. My heart broke for this person, who I had never met, because I know what it is to renegotiate yourself through that sort of brokenness. I gave her some advice. A list of books that had I found helpful.
And I started thinking, not for the first time, about all the people who find themselves living in an after they never expected.
If that’s where you are right now, negotiating an heart-wrenching after, you’re not alone. You’re growing. And you’re changing. And you’re probably breaking into a thousand pieces. But you’re not alone.
You’ll change. You’ll grow. You find yourself all over again. And you put the pieces back, maybe a little differently.
All of this to say, you’ve got this. I believe in you. Go live your after
I felt my rubber muck boot catch the bottom wire of the horse fence. My ankle caught the strand that I had strung there this summer. My knees hit the snow. The five gallon bucket I had been filling at the spigot fell forward out of my hands and spilled into the stark, white snow, soaking my hands through my gloves, emptying in a mockery of the small task I was trying to accomplish.
I was wearing too many layers to injure myself in the fall: my legs were insulated against their snowy landing spot by two pairs of pants and a pair of heavy duty coveralls. Rather, the -15 degree windchill made the possibility of frostbite through my wet gloves my most pressing concern. I stood up slowly–the only possible way to stand in coveralls–and, swearing at the wind or the weather or my own clumsiness, began to refill the bucket. Ponies need water. It is my job to make sure they have it, whether the process for getting it is pleasant or not.
The spigot in my horse barn has managed to remain unfrozen this year, thanks entirely to my father’s handiwork, wrapping it in heat tape and insulating it against the cold, so I haven’t spent this year’s Polar Vortex hand filling a 100 gallon trough, carrying buckets one by one up my icy lane. Rather, when the arctic temps settled in over the midwest a few weeks ago, I found myself battling frozen auto waterers on one side of my barn, frozen furnace lines in my barn furnace (the one that heats my feed room and tack room), and frozen pipes in those same rooms. I’ve been filling water buckets by hand, heating my rooms with space heaters, and hoping for the best. Winter will move on eventually; it always does. And when it does I will have a good idea of what will need to be fixed before the cold strikes again. And something else will break next winter from completely out of left field, because that’s how farms work.
I remember when I was fourteen, walking up the barn lane in the summer, and thinking to myself that “I want a place like this someday.” I remember that moment clearly, though there was nothing significant about it, walking the same steps on the same path that I took everyday to begin work in the morning, but something about it stuck.
I constantly hear people remark that I’m “living the dream.” And, honestly, being here, in this place, with these animals is the culmination of years of dreaming. For so many, myself included, land is “the dream,” horses are “the dream,” eggs from your own hens are “the dream.”
I think about that sometimes when I’m fighting sub-zero temperatures wearing soaked through gloves. I think about it when the manure in the barn stalls is frozen to the ground and can’t be cleaned up. I think about it when my hose lines freeze, or an animal gets injured, or a llama chokes and has to be driven to the University Livestock Hospital two hours away on the night that I’m supposed to be at my Nana’s birthday party.
This is just another reality of “the dream.”
And yet, I could take a thousand photographs and never capture the way that the snow glitters out here in the light of the full moon. I could try to describe the way sunset paints the sky from pink to orange, then to blue and purple fading black, in every post I write from here on out and never do it justice. I don’t know how to express the calm that settles over the horses when I feed them their evening hay, or the glee that overtakes the alpacas when they decide it’s time to play, prancing from one hill in their front pasture to the next and then erupting into bucks and a mad run.
That’s probably more what people have in mind when they decide that I’m “living the dream” out here.
The beauty. The calm.
Dreams aren’t usually what we think they’ll be, and I think some people get discouraged when they realize that their dreams aren’t all sunshine and roses. But, having known any number of people, myself included, who are truly living their dreams, I’m not sure this world ever offers a lifelong dream without difficulty. It always comes at a cost.
It’s usually worth it anyway.
Right now, even though I’ve just about had enough of the cold and all the problems that accompany it, even though the cost is high, it’s worth it.
With that in mind, I’m going to go slip on boots and wander out into the snow. I will feed horses and llamas and ponies. I will brave the cold, again, and try not to slip on the ice. And I will remember that winter will end soon enough, and that anything worth doing is worth doing even when it’s really, really hard.
It’s a straightforward enough question really, and one that comes up a lot when you foray into the world of online dating, but it’s one that I sometimes have a hard time answering.
What am I looking for…?
The truth is, it’s hard to know what you’re looking for in a place that you’ve found yourself by accident.
I’m 31, divorced, and dating again for the first time in 7 years. Honestly, I wasn’t very good at it 7 years ago, and my “time off” hasn’t done me any favors. It’s real weird.
I met my now-ex-husband on match.com when I was 23 years old. We joked that I bought him online for thirty dollars. (In retrospect, I might have been better off putting that money towards a new pair of jeans; I have several well made jeans that have generously outlived that relationship.)
At 23, online dating was a lot like a buffet; you might not like everything that’s available, but you’re bound to find something that agrees with you. At 31, it’s more like a gas station deli counter: pick the least objectionable option, get out quick, and hope to God it doesn’t make you sick.
Actually, that’s not entirely fair. I’ve met some great guys so far. Just not Mr. Right. Not even Mr. Right Now. There was the fantastic guy I connected to emotionally but had no physical chemistry with. (Proof that the universe is deeply unfair.) The great guy and amazing kisser that I had physical chemistry with to spare but struggled to emotionally connect to. (Proof that the universe is still deeply unfair.) The guy I was sort of into who wasn’t into me. And then I the guy I was really, really into who wasn’t into cats. (To be precise…he was deathly allergic to cats, and I have six.)
But, as a rule, I’m not gaining faith in the male gender through this experience. There’s the guy I really liked who ghosted and stood me up. (That’s a real kick to the ego.) The guy who was 15 years older than me with whom I had very little in common that wouldn’t let up on all the reasons “age doesn’t matter” until I eventually blocked him. The smattering of inappropriate solicitations. (People are brazen online, hiding behind relative anonymity.)
I don’t have the sort of life where I “get out and meet new people”–my life is really just an endless loop of work, farm, and my yoga studio–so I find myself mindlessly flipping through dating profiles, swiping left and right with relative abandon. It feels like window shopping. It’s light and breezy and easy.
(“He’s cute.” Swipe Right. “He’s funny.” Swipe Right. “Oh, face tattoo…” To the Left.)
The dating though, the part where you actually meet? That’s more like the time you spend in the changing room when you pull something off the rack. Suddenly you aren’t the size you thought you were, you don’t actually look good in orange, and the outfit you pulled from the sales floor looks way the hell better on the mannequin. Drinks. Dinner. Coffee. But you persist, hoping for that perfect fit. The dress that makes you feel like royalty. The jeans that make your ass look amazing. The guy you actually click with, the one who makes you smile and gives you butterflies. The dress, the jeans, the guy: those things are out there somewhere; it’s sorting through all the rest of it that can get exhausting.
I’m not good at dating really…and I never have been. I’m an introvert. I don’t usually enjoy playing 20 questions with random strangers. I’m not optimistic that a meaningful relationship is going to be built on swiping right.
Here’s the thing though…While I’m, admittedly, not good at dating, I’m really good at relationships. I’m good at giving little meaningful gifts, remembering someone’s coffee order and bringing it to them at work, making brownies for birthdays, cuddling on the couch to watch a movie, holding hands while road tripping to an out of the way restaurant we both want to try. The problem is that the the whole relationship part is dependent on getting through the dating mess. (You can’t take home the outfit until you make it out of the dressing room.)
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.
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…
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.
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.