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.

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.