Preparation and Presence: Some Thoughts on Fall

The barn swallows that make their summer home in our barn have flown south, announcing with their absence that summer is at it’s end.

I suppose they leave one day at dawn. That’s the best explanation I have for the fact that I never notice them leaving so much as I notice that they’ve left. I notice their absence. One day I walk up to the barn, and it’s just…quiet.

Of course, there are other signs of the changing season.

There’s the cricket song that seems to get louder as the weather begins to chill, like a finale to the symphony they’ve played all summer.

There’s the sounds of the Great Horned Owls hooting in the evening as they call back and forth across the property.

But the barn swallows…they herald in the change of season in such a tangible way to me, always appearing and disappearing like magic. Coming and going without fanfare. One day come, announcing summer, and one day gone, my hint of the coming autumn, sandwiched between the first acorns and the fire-red maple leaves.

The presence and absence of barn swallows signal the liminal spaces of my year. The inbetweens.

<<<>>>

I’m almost always a little taken aback by fall. It reminds me of guests arriving early while I myself am running behind. The knock at the door when your hair is still a bit damp, and you haven’t finished putting away the things that had fallen out of place since you last entertained. The glance at your watch and the deep breath you take when you knew something was coming but thought you should have had more time before it actually got here.

Ideally, by the time autumn arrives, the barn is fully stocked with hay. Blankets are washed and put away from last winter, ready to be used again when called upon, and there is a supply of straw set aside to keep little piggies warm as the cold starts to settle in.

Of course, life almost never behaves “ideally.”

<<<>>>

It recently crossed my mind that farm life forces me to strike a balance between presence and preparation in a very visceral way. “Be here now,” only goes so far before you find yourself unprepared for what comes next.

And yet, we don’t have to look very far to find evidence that most of the business of living can’t be prepared for. I can buy hay; in fact, I must buy hay. It’s a necessary preparation, but the preparation is not the living. Stacking hay makes way for winter, but I also must take the season as she comes.

And, if I focus too hard on what comes next, I miss what is right in front of me.

<<<>>>

Yesterday afternoon, I found myself in my veggie garden on my hands and knees, pulling newly turned earth through my fingers in search of potatoes. I started the chore simply because I knew it needed to be done before we have a freeze, but I fell into a rhythm quickly and began to enjoy the process.

Potatoes keep you honest. They force you to pull the weeds you ignored, to turn over the earth, to search with your hands. Potatoes require that you get dirty (or maybe they don’t, but I can’t see the fun in that…)

I felt childlike, pulling my fingers through the loamy dirt in the garden, appreciating the texture of soil that we’ve tilled compost into for three years running. I was reminded of the holes I used to dig in the yard as a child for no real reason. (To see if you really could dig to the other side of the world I think…have I mentioned before that I was a super weird kid?)

I pulled potatoes in shades of purple and gold and red, and they each felt a little like a buried treasure. I almost gleefully tossed them into a box.

I garden for about a hundred reasons: feeding my family, feeding my critters, feeding my friends, reducing our carbon footprint, and appreciating the seasonality of food all come to mind. But the most meaningful reasons for me are the reminders that the garden provides and the presence it brings me into. I dig in the earth and remember that I am part of the earth and that she provides for me bounteously if I let her. That the water I need literally falls from the sky and that the food grows out of the ground I walk on. That potatoes can be pulled from loamy soil in shades of ruby and amethyst and gold, and that real wealth is not metal or stone, but is the food and water and sunlight that sustain us.

When I’m in the garden, especially when I’m literally in the dirt, I’m present. Appreciating the bounty of fall without my thoughts wandering to the coming cold.

<<<>>>

Fall is a liminal space, and sometimes it’s hard to exist in such spaces without thinking yourself forward or backward, but fall on the ranch encourages me to acknowledge what’s coming while sitting with what is here. Soon the freeze will come. Pastures will go dormant. Plants I’ve tending all year in the garden will die back. More of the wild things will migrate, and those of us who make our home here year round will tuck in for the coming cold.

Hay that we’ve set up in the barn, potatoes we’ve dug, squash we’ve harvested, it will all be there to sustain us. The preparations will prove their value. And we will take the winter as she comes.

But, in the meantime, I have more vegetables to harvest and more digging to do on my hands and knees in the cool, loamy soil.

I hope fall is finding you well. I hope you take some time to pause and notice; the swallows have informed me that fall is here, and the leaves are about to remind us of just how beautiful change can be.

Rose in our back woods.

Gardens, celiac disease, and being kind

“Your garden looks great this year!”

“Wow! The garden looks fantastic! Last year by now it was crazy.”

“Man, I’m proud of you. You really kept up with the garden.”

First tomato crop
Butterfly garden.

My gardens are impressive this year. Huge. Productive. Largely weeded. I’m getting comments from nearly everyone who sees them, especially if they’ve see my gardens in the past. Mostly, come July, let alone September, my gardens are lost in the weeds; this year, they looks comparatively manicured. Still, when I hear the compliments they feel a tiny bit sideways. That isn’t how they’re intended.

It’s just how they land.

For some reason, my past attempts feel like failure. More than that, like personal failings.

Why exactly did I succeed this year and fail before? Am I just lazy? Why do I feel blamed for what I didn’t do instead of proud of what I’ve managed to accomplish.

Then I pause, remind myself, sometimes out loud: “Life is easier when you aren’t sick all of the time.”

<<<>>>

Just over a year ago, I found out that I have celiac disease. The changes I have made since–namely ridding my life of all forms of gluten–have been life altering.

Celiac is an autoimmune disorder caused by gluten (a component of wheat) that triggers all kinds of seemingly unrelated symptoms. My symptoms included headaches and migraines, digestive upset, stabbing pain in my stomach, severe fatigue, joint pain, chronic inflammation, peripheral neuropathy, mood changes, and bloating. It also, likely, contributed pretty substantially to both my anxiety and depression. (I mean, I still have those, but they are much more manageable now.)

It’s a pretty extensive list of widely varying symptoms, and before I figured out what was going on, I wasn’t sure whether I was dying or a hypochondriac. (I was beginning to feel pretty sure it was one of the two…)

Over time, gluten exposure can kill the intestines of people with celiac; as such, undiagnosed, it can be deadly. Either way, it makes life pretty miserable.

Within two weeks of getting ridding my diet of gluten, I began to understand what it is to feel healthy. Those weeks were full of epiphanies: You mean it isn’t normal to feel ill after every time you eat? Wait…I literally had a low level headache all of the time? I can make it through a day without taking a nap?

And the weirdest one…

My face isn’t round????

These photos were taken about a week apart. Like I said, not round.

(All of the inflammation had made my face swollen. I lived my entire life thinking I have a round face; I don’t.)

Later, I learned that celiac disease is genetic and that it affects 1% of the general population.

It affects at least 20% of my maternal cousins.

I didn’t realize how much pain I was in, or how fatigued I was, until it went away. I had been running the farm by pushing through pain, and I had beaten myself up for all the ways I hadn’t been able to keep up. Like with the garden.

<<<>>>

Why am I telling you all of this?

Partly, it’s because I discovered this problem by following an internet research rabbit hole. I tested the theory by removing gluten from my diet on my own, and THEN I talked to my doctors about it. I know there are a lot of people out there living with this thing who aren’t aware of it, and I know that it’s possible that telling my story could help. I had been living chronically ill for so long, I didn’t recognize many of my symptoms as symptoms, and I sure as shit didn’t think anything on that random list was related. I’m not the only one.

Also, and this lesson comes up over and over again in my life: it turns out I am often too hard on myself.

<<<>>>

I spent part of the evening shredding yellow squash from the garden for the lasagna I made for dinner and for the muffins I will make tomorrow. Earlier today, I stuck probably thirty tomatoes in the freezer, part of a hack that makes them easy to peel for salsa and canning. I have more green beans than I know what to do with. Honestly, I will probably feed a bunch of them to the pigs this weekend instead of their grain.

I have watermelons to pick, pesto to make, potatoes to dig, and butternut and acorn squash ripening on the vine. My tomato cages have collapsed under the weight of the plants, and my sunflowers, which I honestly just grow for the birds, are 8+ feet high.

My garden looks pretty great this year.

It’s never looked this good before, but it turns out, I’ve never been truly well to take care of it before either. I wish I would have known to give myself a little grace about it before now.

We have all heard the saying “be kind to people, you never know what they’re going through,” and there is so much truth there.

We need to be kind to ourselves too though, and we often are not, not realizing that we don’t always understand everything we, ourselves, are going through.

One of my zinnias from the butterfly garden.

Be kind, loves. Especially to yourselves.

Love like lilacs…on Grandma Alyce and a life well-lived

Everyone and everything I love is holy…

I pause as the sentence pops to mind. It does occasionally, even though it came to me completely by accident at first, the consequence of a mistype and autocorrect.

<<<>>>

A few years ago, a friend and I were chatting about therapy. She was gearing up to go back, but was dreading the work. I was thinking that I probably needed to get back on antidepressants first, because as my depression sat, I didn’t think I would actually get anywhere.

“It would be a fairly nihilistic therapy session,” I began.
“Therapist: so what brings you in today
Me: everyone and everything I love is “

And here’s where I started to write “going to die” and autocorrect changed “going” to “holy.”

I think sometimes the universe interjects itself into our lives, and in this case, I think it was letting me know that I was missing the point.

<<<>>>

Everyone and everything I love is going to die…

My 92 year old grandmother, Alyce, passed away on June 28, leaving behind 9 children, 21 grandchildren, and 26 great grandchildren. Less than a week before, John and I drove up to visit her in the nursing home to which she had recently been moved. We met my cousin Erin there, and the four of us passed the afternoon.

Me, Grandma, Erin, and John

It wouldn’t turn out to be my last visit with her, but the possibility clung to me, a thought I worked to push back. I wanted to enjoy my time with her, and I did. We talked and laughed. Hugged. I turned pages for her while she looked at our wedding album. She told us about the singer who had come to the nursing home the week before. The song she requested. I wish I could remember the name…

Grandma was moved to hospice the next day; it was her choice, and we knew it was coming. She chose to transfer when it became apparent that her congestive heart failure was getting the better of her; she was tired of the doctor visits. Of struggling to breathe.

Maybe, in some ways, she was just tired.

A few days later, I went back to see her again. This time at hospice. She couldn’t speak much, could barely stay awake. The nurses (god bless hospice nurses) kept her comfortable and answered our questions.

Family rotated through. My cousins sat with me. I called my dad and told him to come. I watched several of her sons say their goodbyes. My father audibly. My uncle with a hug.

Her heart was giving out, but her mind was still sharp. She worked to say “I love you” to each of us.

Strange, there was so much sadness in that room, but what struck me over and over was the way love spilled out from every corner. The way it permeated the air.

We stood with her on the edge of death, and it was holy.

<<<>>>

We sat vigil with grandma, no one leaving until the next person had come in. She was never alone.

We talked about her life as we held space for her. Memories each of us had. It’s strange how the people you love, the people who love you, hold different pieces of you. Strange how you can come together and add pieces, one after another, until you paint a vibrant picture.

It’s remarkable how you can come to the end of a 92 year life and leave everyone you know wishing it was longer. I think every single one of us will miss her. And I think the ones who didn’t know her, like my cousins’ children whose memory is still too young, will hear stories that will make them proud of her.

<<<>>>

On July 3, we attended her Celebration of Life.

It’s funny. Knowing her my whole life didn’t quite prepare me for her eulogy. For learning about all of the living she did in the space before me, before my aunts and uncles, before even my grandfather was part of her story.

She had told me about her childhood here and there. I knew that her parents had divorced, in a time when almost no one divorced, and that she had been in the custody of her mother as a young child because her father was willing to take his sons but “didn’t want the girl.” Then she was handed around between caregivers. Her mother. Random relatives. The upstairs neighbor. Her grandparents.

She had a traumatic childhood, one that gave her every excuse in the world to perpetuate the trauma she experienced, but she broke the cycle during a time when people weren’t talking about breaking trauma cycles and mental health resources were far less available. She raised loved and loving children. She was known for welcoming everyone who came through her door (and usually feeding them, even though she actually hated to cook).

I found out that she was a writer, too, in high school. Creative writing. Press club. Even the editor of her high school newspaper. How had that never come up?

I listened to stories about the jobs she held: preschool teacher, Headstart teacher, Meals-on-Wheels deliverer. All jobs that lifted others up. Cared for them.

Hearing new stories from her life felt a little bit magic: a reminder of the depth and breath of nearly a century on this planet. A reminder that we were celebrating a life that had been well lived.

<<<>>>

I asked her what her favorite flower was once. She told me about how her children would bring her lilacs in the spring, and she told me about how she would have liked to have purple roses for her wedding to my grandfather, but that they were poor, so she made her wedding flowers out of tissue. I like that she answered the question with stories.

We had daisies and lily of the valley at her funeral, because I guess those were her favorites, too.

But I think about the tissue roses, and how she made something beautiful with so little. And I think about the lilacs, and how the answer to what she loved wasn’t about the aesthetics. It was about the way her children showed their love. It was about the story.

<<<>>>

Have you ever walked into a grove of blooming lilacs in the evening when the air is heavy? Or walked into a midwestern farmhouse where the cut flowers are sitting in a vase on the table? The scent always registers before the source. It permeates the air.

I think about her final days in hospice, and it occurs to me that grandma spent her final days surrounded by a love like lilacs. A love you felt hanging in the air before you could pin down a source.

<<<>>>

Everyone and everything we love is going to die; everyone and everything we love is holy.

I miss her.

I didn’t see Grandma all that often, but I feel her absence. The planet was better with her on it.

But, also, the planet is better for her having been on it. That, I think, is the most we can wish for anyone in the end.

Well, that, and a holy love.

Like lilacs

Grandma and Grandpa

It’s been a while: Writing, Updates, and the Rule of Three

Hello, lovelies.

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Nearly a year since I wrote a blog post from start to finish, more time than I would like to admit. Event after event, thought after thought passed. I made mental notes, sometimes physical notes, drafting out what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t quite get in all down: the right words in the right order to say the right thing. Putting sentences together so that they are good (and not bad), so that they fall almost like a conversation between us sitting at my dining room table.

I had posts I wanted to write about dear creatures I lost, but sometimes it feels like I speak too much of the loss that gets wrapped up in this kind of life and not enough about the beauty, even though so often they feel like one and the same. I wanted to write about some of the goodbyes.

I wanted, too, to write about some of the hellos. The new fur friends out here, who came to us either by chance or breeding. About the joy of watching baby llamas prance in the front pastures. About my infatuation with the trio of potbelly pigs I named after Shakespearean characters. About the foster dogs who have come and gone on their way to their forevers. About the one I kept.

I wanted to tell you that I got engaged. That I got married. That the boyfriend I mentioned from time to time has upgraded to husband.

Engagement photo. With a horse. And a bike.

Every time I sat down to write something new, it felt like I wouldn’t be able to catch you all up. That too much had happened. That I had been too lax in reporting this almost farm life.

Maybe I was right. Maybe I let it go too long. Or, maybe, I need to extend some grace to myself for not doing everything, all the time, during one of the busier seasons of my life. Maybe I need to thank you for the grace you are offering by coming back, by reading, by sitting down for one of these one-sided conversations after all this time.

I’ve missed this. I’ve missed you.

I suppose, now that I’m sitting here again behind this computer, I will have to settle for catching you up in bits and pieces. Fits and spurts. And I’ll start here.

<<<>>>

John and I got engaged and planned our wedding over the course of about 5(ish) months. Engaged in July. Married in December.

Wedding. In San Diego.
Because if you get married in December it’s best not to do it in Central Illinois.

We did it all quickly to squeeze the wedding it in between his last two semesters of college, allowing him, as my spouse, to use some of the free credits I had earned in my years as an adjunct professor at same college. John had planned to propose to me after graduation, but it made sense to move everything forward to put us on slightly better financial footing as we started our lives together.

So I planned a wedding in five months.

In the meantime, I decided to finally take the leap into yoga teacher training, which has been calling me for years.

I guess that’s how I found myself living in one of the busiest times of my life. Farm and work. Wedding planning and yoga teacher training. And while I was living that, John worked through engineering college and held an engineering position as well.

I’m (finally) feeling things slow down.

<<<>>>

A few weeks ago, a dear friend and mentor reached out to me to suggest that I attend a writing workshop she is hosting in the fall. I told her I was interested. That I would need to think on it. Talk to John. Research flights.

She told me, in the most loving way, that she “got this feeling you [I] need to keep writing.”

I sent in a deposit.

I have this theory–I’m not sure I’ve shared with you–that when the same message comes at you from three different directions, it’s a message from the universe. (I’ve had it happen several times, perhaps the most notable when three people asked me, in as many days, if I had considered the possibility that my ex husband was cheating on me. The day after the third repetition of the question, I found his texts to his mistress.)

This time, however, it was a reminder to write, coming from three unconnected people within a week or two.

“Have you been writing?”

“When are you going to finish that book?”

“I’ve got this feeling that you need to keep writing.”

The truth is, I’ve had the same feeling. Not because this blog is wildly popular (it’s not) or because I think what I have to say is a necessity for anyone else (I don’t), but because I feel more “right” in my own skin when writing is part of my routine. It helps me make sense of the stuff in my head, the words I write helping me untangle my thoughts the way you might untangle yarn knotted up by a playful kitten: slowly, methodically, and without judgment.

Plus, the universe told me to do it, so there’s that…

<<<>>>

It’s interesting. All in all, things in my life are good and steady in a way that they weren’t for a long time. I’m grateful.

This is a truth.

Also, it’s easy to let the things we love just…slide.

That is also a truth.

Life gets in the way. Things get busy. God knows the laundry doesn’t stop.

I rationalize: This can wait. That can wait.

Then, suddenly, I realize that it’s been months since I’ve written in anything other than a journal. My riding boots have gotten dusty, sitting unused, while I worried about cleaning stalls. I spent so much time stressing about doing things “right” that I fail to do them at all.

Even in all the good, there is still this search for equilibrium. For balance. For a set of scales that allows me to love and be loved and love myself in equal measure.

Life is tricky that way.

All of this to say, I’m writing again. I’m going to try to keep at it because it is something that I love.

And, I hope, as you read this, you find yourself pulled towards grace and loving yourself…and maybe to that thing that you haven’t picked up in a while.

Maybe the universe is reminding you, too.

Either way, I’m rooting for you.

Leg Yields and Core Values.

“Leg yield off the wall to the center of the arena, and then switch sides and leg yield back onto the wall. It doesn’t matter whether or not you get there. I just want you to try.”

I hear my trainer’s instructions from my spot in the saddle, sitting on a gruella lesson mare named Violet. I turn down the long side of the arena and begin my leg yield, concentrating on the simultaneous use of my hands, legs, and seat to achieve a desired outcome. My focus is on the leg yield, but the second set of her instructions are sticky, and I find myself repeating her words for the rest of the lesson, then again on my drive home: It doesn’t matter if you get there…just try.

<<<>>>

I started taking riding lessons again. Once a week I drive an hour and a half to a dressage barn to ride horses that aren’t mine.

Me and Mac. Gearing up for a lesson.

I did the math, and I’ve been riding on and off for about 27 years. With the exception of reading, singing, and possibly writing, that makes it my the most long term pastime of my life, but in recent years, especially after my marriage to a man who regularly made it a point to criticize my skill in the saddle, my confidence had plummeted, and I didn’t feel up to restarting or riding my horses on my own. When my bestie and riding buddy, Lauren, moved away from the ranch to take up her next adventure, I made the leap back into lessons, hoping that I could rebuild some of the confidence I had lost.

Once upon a time, you could put me on about any reasonable horse and point me at a jump course (or…insert whatever discipline I happened to be riding here…), and I would take off without hesitation. I would do it because I knew that, in all likelihood, I could do it.

But for years now, I’ve been less sure. I’ve been uncertain, and I’m not good at uncertain.

<<<>>>

It doesn’t matter if you get there…just try.

I’ve been thinking a lot about core values lately. If you haven’t heard the term, your core values are your (five or so) fundamental, guiding beliefs. These are the ideas that move you. If you’re living in alignment with them, you are likely to consider yourself on track or successful. If you aren’t living in alignment with them, you will probably feel like shit about yourself or your decisions.

In the pre-pandemic, before times, I taught my students about core values in my business communication class. I did this because I wanted them to understand their internal ethic when it came to how they wished to do business. (Additionally, I think the discussion itself is a valuable tool in anyone’s toolbox; knowing your core values can, among other things, actually make you less susceptible to advertising.)

Values can fall all over the map of human beliefs. They can be a positive force (kindness as a core value, for example), but many of them are not (popularity or wealth building as a core value comes to mind). Some are more neutral (success, because the term really only means what you believe it to mean for you). Some are evaluated based on the reactions of other people external to yourself (again, popularity comes to mind). These values will likely cause you pain, because you’re not actually in control of whether or not you’re living them out. Others, like love, are judged by your own internal rubric.

Research suggests that you’re better off having values under your control (judged by your rubric, not how you think others perceive you) and values that are growth-minded instead of measured by a singular event. (If success is a core value, don’t define it as having a nice car, because when you have the nice car, there will be no where else for the value to take you. They tend to feel empty when that’s the case.)

(Here’s a list with about 500 examples of possible core values. They’re worth a glance.)

Your actions, feelings, and the way you perceive yourself are guided by your specific set of values. It’s best to understand what they are.

<<<>>>

Here are the questions I’ve been asking myself lately: What’s driving me? Am I driven by values that I actually want to be driven by? How am I measuring my success or failure as a person?

Can I change my values to reflect more of the life I want?

I realized the more I dug down that I am judging myself by core values that I don’t actually believe in. A few of them are cultural–material success, productivity, capitalism–and some are ideas that I grew up with and internalized uncritically as a child. (It occurred to me as I worked through all of this that much of the cognitive dissonance we experience as humans comes from the conflict between your values and the values instilled in you by your family of origin (the values of your childhood).)

Growing up, my mother’s mantra was “Be the best.” She continued, quoting her father, “Be the best. If you’re going to be a ditch digger, then be the best ditch digger, and soon you’ll be in charge of all the other ditch diggers.” Honestly, there are some worthy values buried in there, and for some they might have walked away with values of personal responsibility or hard work, but that’s not how it landed for me.

Instead, I got stuck on “be the best,” which distills down to the core value of “best,” and, for many of us, this is a toxic value. For one thing, it’s based on how you compare to other people, and we know that that is problematic, but also, because I valued myself on whether or not I was “best,” I was, and still am, resistant to trying anything that I don’t already know I’ll be good at.

Here’s a fact: I am not the best at anything.

This is not a disparagement. There are certainly things I’m good at, but there is no category in which I am Simone Biles or Michael Phelps. I am not, and will never be, the best. And I’m learning to be ok with that.

<<<>>>

I made a list.

Here’s are the five values that I want to have guiding my life. (Some are hyphenated, so it’s possible I cheated a bit, but I think they’re different faces of the same idea.)

* Authenticity/Vulnerability
* Compassion
* Creativity
* Fun
* Learning/Self-Knowledge

These are my chosen core values. Some of them I do a pretty good job at living out. Others not so much–I am just terrible at fun to be honest–but knowing what I want them to be helps me to measure my actions accordingly.

Here are a few of the values I find myself living by that I’m working to untangle, recognize, and remove:
* Best
* Materially Successful
* Productive

All of these values fuel my perfectionism, which, ironically, makes me way less productive, successful, or likely to ever be the best. I judge myself by them regularly, even though I don’t believe they should be guiding values in my life.

<<<>>>

Back to the lesson:

I worked on leg yields on and off for the rest of the lesson. None of them were flawless.

Once upon a time I used to tell adults that I wanted to ride in the Olympics someday. I don’t think it was ever true. I didn’t have a burning desire to be the best in the world. I really just wanted to spend time with horses, and I felt as though I had to justify it in a productive way, even then. Even as a child.

I will never be an Olympian. I don’t want to be.

Riding lessons take about 4 and a half hours out of my day for me to sit in the saddle for a half an hour. But you know what? It’s a FUN half an hour! It isn’t productive. I will never, ever be the best, but I am learning a lot of new and interesting ways to fail.

It’s reminding me that trying is it’s own reward, even when I don’t achieve my goal, whatever that goal happens to be.

My instructor is still echoing in my head.

“It doesn’t matter whether or not you get there. I just want you to try.”

<<<>>>

Drop a comment if you took a look at the list! What are your core values? Are the values guiding your life the values you want guiding your life?

April Snow and All

It snowed today.

According to the weather, it may snow again tomorrow.

Spring in the Midwest can be like this, with flip flops and tank tops one day and winter gear the next, pulled from a closet where you all too optimistically stashed them away just a week earlier.

Last night, I spent the last hour and a half before sunset in a winter jacket preparing the barn, blanketing a few vulnerable animals, and covering plants that had the audacity to emerge before the final frost of the season.

I was back and forth from the house to the barn so much that my dog, Rose, laid down begrudgedly in the garden instead of keeping pace as I did my chores. She looked at me seemingly frustrated, perhaps wondering why I couldn’t just pick a spot already.

“I just have to make it to the end of the week…” I thought, dragging a old watering trough behind me from the back barn to the garden, a soon to be cover for my already blooming daffodils.

<<<>>>

It’s been about a year since Covid changed things for all of us. Seasons have shifted one to the next like a playlist that brings us back to the beginning again. Masks now hang next to my keys, and I would no sooner go out without one than the other. Everything and nothing is the same.

I’ve been quiet this year, I suppose. (Shout out to the followers who are still reading this even though my last blog post was nearly four months ago.) The best of intentions to write didn’t get me very far in our pandemic world. Maybe I haven’t felt like I had much to write about. In some ways, that seems like the case; the day to day doesn’t change all that much at the moment.

Maybe a lot of what I could have written about is sad.

Maybe, and I suspect there’s some truth in this, it’s that a lot of us have developed some plague-induced level of attention deficit. It’s just been harder to focus for a while now, especially on the things that are still right in front of us.

Maybe, and I KNOW there’s truth in this, the pandemic has a lot of us pouring ourselves out and not taking much time to fill back up. A friend and fellow writer reminded me very gently several weeks back that no one can pour from an empty cup.

Probably my quiet is some combination of all of these things, and probably a whole host of other factors that haven’t occurred to me yet.

<<<>>>

I think a lot of us are thinking about “just making it to…” the end of the week, the end of the semester, the end of the pandemic. More than usual, we’ve gotten used to living in a state of anticipation, of grinning and bearing it until something changes. We stay quiet. We hold…hopefully steady.

We wait.

About two weeks ago, John and I brought home a foster dog who was not quite as advertised. She was supposed to be cat and dog friendly, and she just is not. Don’t get me wrong. She’s a good dog, but she has to be kept on a leash– when not in her kennel–at all times. She’s sweet as pie with people, but the girl is unpredictably animal aggressive. It complicated our lives a fair bit.

She’s going home with her adopter to be an only pet on Thursday, but, somehow, in the meantime, she made me acutely aware of all of my waiting.

Last night, trudging through Monday to get to Thursday, when the household would settle and the weather would go back to something closer to normal, I wondered just how much of my life has been spent this way.

Waiting.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with anticipation or hope, but sometimes, especially maybe when a global pandemic has all of us holding our breath until things get back to normal, we forget to live the in between.

Last week, I found myself driving over the river to meet John for dinner. I was stressed out, thinking about our difficult foster dog, fences that needed mending, bills coming due. My shoulders were noticeably tensed and my jaw had clenched.

And I thought “Soon.”

Soon it will be different. Better. Easier. I focused on some ephemeral moment in the future when I would have a little more room to breath. I may have actually been holding my breath.

To my left, the sun glinted off the river, light playing on the water, practically splashing in the waves. I let out a sigh as I noticed it.

And a new thought.

“Now.”

Right now. Sunset on the Illinois River. Snow on the Daffodils. This is the life we have been waiting for. Whatever it is, pandemic and all.

Sometimes, I think, we don’t miss the forest for the trees.

We miss the trees for the forest.

We miss the way the sun glints off the water at sunset because we are worried about the difficult foster situation and are focusing on the next change. We miss the favorite song that comes on the radio as we drive to meet someone we love and are lucky enough to be able to still see because we have a bill looming and a date attached. We miss the evening bird song because we are frantically trying to cover the plants before the snow comes.

We miss the life we’re living for the worries we have over it.

<<<>>>

Today I made a point to notice how unexpectedly beautiful spring flowers are when they’re covered in snow. I took a minute to breath. To give myself a break. Even to take a nap.

The worries, of course, are still there, but the time will never come when they aren’t. The weather in the Midwest will always be unpredictable. Animal rescue, for as long as I do it, will come with it’s complications. There will always be a new bill. There will always be something to stress about.

The key, I think, is not to live a life of “it will be better when,” but to recognize the both/and nature of the life and world. Especially now. Especially when the news and our lives are always there to remind us that this world is complicated and hard. When we are tired, and life has us quiet.

Frederick Buechner once wrote “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

Beautiful and terrible. Exciting and mundane. Here, my beloveds, is the world: the terrible, beautiful, anxiety-inducing world that we live in.

I hope we all remember to notice it. To notice the moments of our actual life, as it actually is.

April snow and all.

“I think, this year, we’re all just trying to figure out how to get by.”

Merry Christmas Eve, my loves.

If you’re reading this, you made it to the final round of Jumanji…I mean, 2020. Congratulations.

I hope this post/letter finds you well.

I’m listening to the Acoustic Christmas playlist on Spotify–I highly recommend it–sitting on my couch. One of the most perfect Fraser Firs in the history of Christmas stands to my right, covered in lights and ornaments that twinkle. My hay guy, who also happens to be my Christmas tree guy, told me that his trees sold out much faster this year; what usually sells in two weeks sold in something like eight days.

I think that means that everyone was a little more ready than usual for a dose of Christmas magic.

This has been such a weird year. I know that all of you know that, but man, I’m amazed by all that has come to pass since I wrote my last Christmas post. For a lot of us, that weird year is going to end with a weird holiday. For me, tonight is the first Christmas Eve that I won’t be spending with my father’s side of the family. We usually play Bunco and eat lots of food and sing carols. This year we’re having a Zoom meeting.

<<<>>>

Last night, while waiting at the local Italian restaurant for (to-go) garlic bread, a family friend walked in. I used to babysit his kids, and I was actually in his daughter’s wedding, but he didn’t immediately recognize me in a mask. I said hi, but could tell that he was having trouble placing me. (Also, when I was regularly in his family’s proximity, my hair wasn’t pink, so there’s that too.)

“You’re…Ch…?”

He paused and almost said my sister’s name before I completed the word with my own.

“Cherity”

“I’m sorry. It’s just hard to tell with these masks.”

I nodded. Agreed. Smiled. But again, hard to say if he could tell I smiled, because mask.

We politely chit chatted for a bit as we both waited on our carry out. We exchanged hellos for our families. (“Tell your parents I said hi.” That sort of thing) He asked how I was doing. I replied with a perfunctory, “Doing ok, getting ready for the holiday.” He replied by shaking his head no in a world weary sort of way.

“I think, this year, we’re all just trying to figure out how to get by.”

There was nothing new in that sentiment, but I was thinking about it as I drove home. The way this virus is a very collective experience.

We, all of us, trying to figure out how to get by.

<<<>>>

Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about light.

Monday, the 21st, was the winter solstice. It’s the day in our year with the shortest period of daylight, and, consequently, the longest night.

The solstice is why we put lights on our Christmas trees. (Actually, Yule, the holiday of the solstice, is why we have Christmas trees at all.) The solstice is the time when we look for light inside, rather than outside. It’s when we carry the memory of light in an act of solidarity with the earth as she makes her way back towards it.

The solstice is our reminder that darkness always seems the most all-encompassing right before light starts to come back. And light always comes back.

I thought, too, about how so many cultures have celebrations of light, many of them this time of year. Christmas. Yule. Hanukah. Kwanza. All celebrate the light. All of them teach us to hold onto it.

This time of year, we celebrate the light that we cannot see.

This year is a really good time to celebrate light that we cannot see.

<<<>>>

I listened to Christmas carols on the way home from the restaurant. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel came on, moving through my shuffle. It’s always been one of my favorite carols.

It’s a song of heartbreak and joy, and I’ve always loved art that allows, as in life, for those two emotions to co-exist.

It’s the song of the end of exile. A song of redemption that begins with God and ends in us, no matter what happens around us. The name, Emmanuel, means “God with Us.” The carol is a celebration of a world where God indwells. Even when things aren’t perfect.

<<<>>>

Lauren and I did chores early tonight, filling up hay feeders and hay nets with an abundance of alfalfa, enough to get all the critters through a cold, dark night. We fed everyone, including our newest residents, two mini donkeys and three potbelly pigs who needed a soft place to land.

For me, chores are a measure of continuity. The way so many things stay the same even when the world is chaotic. The way that the world behaves according to its own rhythms. The way, every year, we do chores earlier in December as we wait upon longer days and more light.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about all of the light festivals. The way they prove that we have more in common than not. The way that we all cling to the knowledge that light follows the darkness, regardless of our creed.

I find myself thinking of all of you, and hoping that you all are holding onto the light. It’s coming. The light will be here soon. In the meantime, the answer is always more love.

I pray that you take this holiday season, whatever holiday you celebrate, to love your neighbor.

Your homeless neighbor. Your neighbor of color. Your LGBTQ neighbor. Your immigrant neighbor.

Remember that all of us are waiting, together, on the light. Remember that all of us, this year, are just trying to figure out how to get by.

Merry Christmas everyone.

<<<>>>

Pandemics and Paying Attention

I’m writing this from my front porch. I bought a new rocking chair set this year from the feed store; in a world of work-from-home and pandemics, it was money well spent.

It’s windy, but warm; I’m comfortable in a t-shirt and yoga pants, my official uniform of quarantine and Covid19. My dogs are outside with me, and the llamas and horses have chosen the pasture over the barn today. All of us, I think, know that cooler weather is closing in and are making the most of the last few breaths of warm before the chill.

For the first time, I am noticing that wind through the crisp, Midwestern, autumn leaves sounds a little like the sea. I can imagine standing at the edge of a pier right now, waves breaking upon the shore.

My wind chimes, a large set with deep, resonant notes, are moved along with the trees and provide notes that carry across the farm like an almost song.

<<<>>>

It has been a weird year. But you know that. Six months ago, I didn’t imagine that we would still be tucking away in October. That we would still be wearing masks and trying to stay a llama’s distance from everyone else.

I also didn’t expect the pandemic to come so close. Touching people and places I love.

John and I are self-quarantining for the second time since the virus hit the states. Both times, it’s been due to possible exposure. We don’t have any symptoms, but today, I got my 5th Covid test since the beginning of the pandemic.

It’s amazing what is starting to feel normal.

I remember, as a child, wondering what it felt like to live through big moments in history. But that was before 9/11. Before the financial collapse of ’08.

Before now.

Make no mistake, these are the days our grandchildren–if we have them–will ask us about. They will be writing papers about the pandemic and about the election. The climate.

I think, if I’m asked, I will say that Octobers began feeling warmer and that life was mostly the same as always until you came upon a moment that felt unreal, like when you saw the airliners parked en masse at major airports because almost no one was flying, or when you saw red and orange casted photos that your friends took while they evacuated ahead of the west coast wildfires.

I will tell them that when you got a cough or a fever you worried. Instantly. Even though it was probably just allergies or the flu or one of a thousand other illnesses that could cause those symptoms.

I will tell them that I went to some of the the protests and vigils for George Floyd, that we marched wearing masks to protect each other, and that, contrary to what some might try to tell you, there was a lot of love and grace in those places. That there was hope. I will tell them that we took to the streets during a national pandemic, as safely as we could, to try and make things better for the children coming up behind us.

And I think I will tell them that it was difficult to follow the news, because sometimes it seemed like everything was bad.

<<<>>>

I think a lot of us are feeling like the world is closing in a little too tightly right now.

I’m working through a book about connecting to our innate creativity, called “The Artist’s Way,” with a friend of mine. (It’s been really helpful, to be honest, and I highly recommend it.) The author, Julia Cameron, writes, “Survival lies in sanity, and sanity lies in paying attention.

Right now, as we live through certifiably insane times, I can’t help but think that paying attention is more important than ever. However, to quote another author whose work I love, we need to be mindful to “Pay attention to what you pay attention to.” (Austin Kleon, Keep Going)

Today, I caught myself scrolling Facebook for way too long. It’s easy to do. We’ve created our own little echo chambers. Safe and comfortable. A place where arm chair activism can be mistaken for actual activity and outrage at the proverbial other is found with every click.

…sanity lies in paying attention.”

I worry about the election, and I spiral. My anxiety gets triggered. I make the mistake of reading the comments section of a political article, and 45 minutes later, I’ve lost 45 minutes of my life AND my faith in humanity. I worry about the pandemic, for myself and others. Lately it’s been hard for me to pay attention to the right things.

But, still, I am learning…

A few weeks ago, I found one of my favorite llamas, Rabbit, sitting on the ground just outside the barn, unable to get up. He was older, near 17 I think, and one of my favorites.

When one of my older animals goes down and is unable to stand back up, especially outside, I don’t expect them to improve. I’ve seen it too many times, and have come to the conclusion that fighting the inevitable in an actively failing critter is unfair and unkind. Life, it turns out, is a terminal condition, and sometimes the kindest thing we can do for our critter friends is to make their last journey as comfortable as possible.

I called the vet.

Since Rabbit wasn’t in active distress, the vet slotted his euthanasia in for later that day. I hung up the phone, sat on a haybale, and cried.

On top of the pandemic and every other damn thing, I had already lost two animals in the few weeks prior to finding Rabbit unable to stand. An older horse, Candi, and an older llama, Llewis, all three with unrelated issues. And it hit me in that moment, the weight of loss. I cried for all three of them and for myself. And a little bit, I think I cried for all of us.

When the tears slowed, I made my way to the feed room and mixed up some grain for Rabbit. The sweet stuff with lots of molasses. My boy would go out full. I brought him some water and hay, deposited a bucket of sweet grain in front of him, and covered him in blankets against the chill. Then I sat with him, because I loved him and didn’t want him to spend his last afternoon alone. An hour or so later, my friend Katie joined us, bringing me hot chocolate; after that, Lauren came up to the barn. Both of them sat with me and Rabbit while we waited for the vet to come because they love me and didn’t want me to be alone.

Me and Rabbit.

The vet was later than he first estimated, but that was ok. It gave the sun time to move higher in the sky. For the shadows to retreat so that Rabbit could spend a final hour laying in the sun. I wanted it that way.

<<<>>>

Time and again, this place and these creatures remind me of what’s important in a culture that is always trying to redirect my (our) attention. Plans went out the window, because sometimes the most important thing is right in front of you. Not just Rabbit though. Not just saying goodbye to old friends, but the support that comes out to greet you when you need it. The friends who, time and time again, have proven to me that they have my back, whatever that looks like in that moment, even when it looks like sitting on the ground for hours on a chilly day waiting for the vet.

My friends, my creatures, and this place remind me of all the million ways that we belong to each other.

I posted a prayer from Nadia Bolz-Weber on my personal Facebook recently. The whole thing is beautiful, but one line struck especially deeply. She writes: “Remind us that for every tragedy that’s “newsworthy” there are a million kindnesses, and countless acts of love that go unreported.”

That’s what we need to pay attention to, not to the exclusion of the major events happening all around us, but as their complement. Neither tells the whole story of this crazy year.

<<<>>>

Today, after work, I listened to the wind through the autumn trees and realized that they sound like waves crashing on a beach, and I imagined that beach. I sat outside with my dogs, and I enjoyed the sun. (We all should take time to enjoy the sun.) I collected zinnia seeds from my garden, and I paid attention to the wild colors of the still blooming zinnias to my left and right.

I planted some beautiful things this spring, despite all of the insanity. Next year, I will plant some more, and I will work hard to pay attention to all of the beautiful things happening all around me.

***Both of the books mentioned in the post are affiliate linked, which means that if you buy them through these links, I will make a small amount of money. Two notes on that: first, it does not change your purchase cost, and second, I will never affiliate link to a product I don’t believe in. I love both of these books!

New Normals, Old Normals and the Best Laid Plans of Mice and Me in the Age of Covid

The leaves on the sugar maple in my front pasture are turning crimson. For years, I’ve watched this process, noticing that this particular tree changes its leaves directly from green to red somehow, with no shades of gold or orange in the in-between. When a chill builds in the air, crimson builds from the crown of the tree down until all of it is bathed in red like roses. For most of the year, I barely notice her, but in the autumn, she rivals any summer flower.

There’s a chill in the mornings, the sort that has me in a sweatshirt or flannel until the afternoon sun warms us to almost, but not quite summer temperatures. The crickets are ramping up their songs. Some of the birds have already flown south, our barn swallows and, I think, our hummingbirds among them.

Autumn is settling in like the dusk.

<<<>>>

Summer on the ranch has passed by in something of a blur. Two of my dearest people moved in: one of my best friends, Lauren, moving into my guest house in July, and my boyfriend of almost three years, John, moving in with me in August. And, just like that, my stint living mostly or completely alone out here, one that began well within the confines of my marriage, ended.

Just like that, the burden of this place was spread across several shoulders more than my own.

<<<>>>

Last Saturday, the three of us spent our evening setting up winter hay in the hayloft: 100 bales, putting our total set up for the winter at around 350. Last year, I set up over 500, but I found myself with an abundance of hay at the end of the Spring, enough that I am still working through the last of it.

It’s tricky, figuring out what you need before you need it. If hay hadn’t already proven that to me, 2020 would have with its pandemic, quarantines, social justice, and raging climate issues.

It’s strange. We are suddenly so very aware that nothing is certain. I read somewhere that the exhaustion so many of us are feeling comes from the realization of that reality. It has always been true, but now we are forced to acknowledge it.

It’s been six months since the onset of Covid19. A friend of mine calls anything before that “the before times” and something about that phrase very much resonates.

Remember when we thought it would only last a few weeks? When we thought we could use the downtime to be super productive and accomplish ALL OF THE THINGS? Remember when everyone was baking all of the time?

I’ve gone from quarantine baking to quarantine Weight Watchers. From unemployment (due to the slowdown) to working at home. I’ve struggled with feelings of guilt and inadequacy–so not that different from usual–stemming from the fact that I still can’t quite accomplish everything on my to-do list, even with all of the extra time I sort of have as a result of no commute and, for a while, my decreasing work load.

Does anyone else feel like both everything and nothing have changed?

In some ways, life continues as usual out here. It’s still Autumn, with all of the truths and chores that suggests. We are still setting up hay, still harvesting the last of the garden. Still trying to predict the future, at least enough to figure out how much hay to set up for winter. But, in some ways, it’s all different. No autumn parties or bonfires. No plans to visit the nearby orchard. A hard pass on all but the smallest of gatherings. To me, all of this feels a lot like flying a holding pattern above an airport while you wait to be cleared to land.

<<<>>>

I’m not exactly sure what my point is here. Why I’m writing this…except maybe to break through my writer’s block a little and to remind all of you that our new normal is so far from normal that normalcy should not be expected. In other words, give yourselves a little grace. Maybe even more than a little, if you can manage it.

Now is the time for grace, not only for ourselves, but for each other. Grace for those in pain. Grace for those feeling loss. Grace for everyone we come in contact with. (Sometimes grace for everyone else looks like wearing a mask to protect them. Full stop.)

This too shall pass. Like the summer. Like the autumn. Like all of the best laid plans of mice and me.

Grandpa, Grieving, and Learning to Carry Love

I think the season might have changed from spring to summer while I wasn’t looking. A quiet breath of change that happened maybe while I was grading. Or shearing. Or mourning.

Collectively, a lot of us are mourning right now. Lives lost to COVID. Lives lost to violence. Lost experiences. Lost sense of normalcy. The world, I think, is undergoing some changes, and it can be hard to keep up or know quite where you fit.

I’m feeling all of that.

I set out at the beginning of quarantine with grand intentions to write more, but I’ve struggled with it. The more you don’t write, the harder it is to get back in the habit; it’s a skill that must be practiced as much (maybe more) than it is a talent. Early on, it was the chaos of online teaching that made me feel stuck. I only had so much brain space, and it didn’t seem I could fit much else in beyond my classroom. Then it was loss and depression and anxiety. Personal and collective.

We’re all going through a collective experience of trauma right now. Several of them really. Some people are handling it better than others, I think. Some people are really struggling. Some people don’t quite know what to feel.

Suddenly, and collectively, we’ve come to the ever present but often ignored conclusion that our lives are very often out of our control.

Beyond our collective grief and mourning, my family has experienced personal loss. My grandpa passed away this spring, an illness or injury that it seemed like the doctors couldn’t quite pin down took him from us. Thanks to the virus, most of us didn’t really get to say goodbye. We texted and called. We posted memories and remembrances on social media. We even had a collective ice cream social on Zoom. (If you knew my grandpa, you know that he loved ice cream.)

Grandpa with the signature smile. He’s wearing that smile in nearly all my memories of him.

We didn’t get to hug him or each other, though. We didn’t get to have a wake or a funeral.

I’m sure I’m not the only member of the family who felt depression hang over me like a shadow as he faded from us. The virus creates loss without context. An emptiness that just seems to appear in front of you like a fall into Wonderland through a rabbit hole.

(Hmmm…I think grandpa would like that analogy; he was a nationally known rabbit breeder, and it seems very likely to me that he would have been pretty comfortable with his gateway to the afterlife taking the shape of a rabbit hole or maybe a path through a rabbit coop full of his favorite Flemish Giants.)

My depression had been waiting in the wings since the start of the virus, and it poured onto center stage following on the heels of our loss. It does that. Comes and goes, but never really goes. It was my companion for a few weeks, a welling up inside me that occasionally rose to prominence and took over. I was thankful for my support system. For my friends who called or texted to check in. For family, who knew my loss by feel because it had spread across their skin and hearts as well. For my guy, who didn’t have the words (because, believe me, no one ever does) but who wrapped me up in his arms and told me he would be right there as long as I needed him, who let me cry on his shoulder and brought me pizza when food had lost a lot of its appeal.

A photo from Grandma’s 90th birthday this year. John, Grandpa, Grandma, and Me. I love this photo.

I’ve read that grief is love that has no where to go, that that’s why we should let people have their grief, to ride through the rough terrain of loss rather than try to smooth it over for them with platitudes. You have to learn to ride through the rough road carrying the love with you; no one can navigate the holy pain of loss in your stead.

One of my aunts wrote a touching tribute to grandpa a few days before his death, when we all knew it was coming and felt ourselves waiting for the hand of the creator to deliver him from his intense pain. She wrote about all the things she would miss. All the ways she would miss him.

I somehow didn’t see her reflection until a few days after he passed. I had spent the in between thinking about all the things I would miss as well.

One line she wrote, “I will miss the way you measured time by season and weather, the way any farmer does,” bounced around in my chest, filling space in an empty spot that I hadn’t known was there.

I do that too…

My grandfather left an obvious legacy. He and my grandmother raised nine children on a farm along the rock river. Those children, in turn, raised their children in their own way–some on farms of their own; some, like mine, in town in a small house with a white picket fence–but all of us have a little plow dirt in our blood I think, some more obviously than others. Most of us have a dose of Midwestern common sense. Many of us know the magic of being rooted, connected to the growth of things in a very visceral way. He quietly taught us that, I think.

Not long after he passed, the month of May surprised Central Illinois with a late frost. Dad came over and helped me cover my garden. We spread plastic sheets over green beans and put buckets upside down over tomatillos and tomatoes. I used actual blankets to tuck in my broccoli and slung Max’s first coat over my lettuce to protect it, as I had with him, from the cold. I thought about Grandpa a lot that night, wondering how many times he worked to protect the crops from a late frost, thought about the way he taught dad how to drive a tractor and plant corn in rows and the way Dad taught me.

The frost claimed no casualties in my garden, despite rolling over the ridge line low and fierce; it was protected by the knowledge that a family passes from one to the next.

It strikes me sometimes that he isn’t here anymore; that I won’t see him on Christmas Eve. That we won’t talk about my horses again; I won’t see him nod approvingly and tell me “that’s a fine looking horse” with the knowledge of a seasoned horseman when I pull out a photo of my latest project. I won’t hear him comment on the price of milk or this year’s corn crop or the weather. He won’t wrap me up in a bear hug that smells just a little like a barn. (His hugs would lift us off the ground until he was well into his 70s.)

I will miss him.

But I will think of him when I see the sun set over corn fields. When I start up a tractor. When I breathe in the scent of freshly plowed garden dirt. When I eat ice cream, like he did, with a fork.

I suspect that I will measure “time by season and weather” for the rest of my days, the same way he did through all of his.

I think it’s true that grief is love with no where to go. I’ve learned that the process of grieving teaches you where to put that love, how to share it, how to pull it out when you need to remember the ways it made you who you are.

Grandpa in the barn with his rabbits.
Mom, Grandma, Grandpa, Dad, my sister, and me. (I’m the little one.)

I hope your grieving, however it looks now, teaches you more about love and reminds you how to be full.