Take Me Home Country Roads

My commute to the office usually takes about twenty-five minutes.  It’s two-lane, country driving the entire way along one of the Illinois’ River Roads.  My landmarks as I drive are a railroad crossing, a bald eagle nest, and a couple of roadside picnic benches.  There usually isn’t much traffic, but you do have to watch for deer.  Especially during the rut.

This time of year, I watch for turtles.  So far, I’ve stopped and given a crossing assist to five of them, parking along the roadside with my hazards flashing.  (Only one peed on me…but that’s a different story.)

It’s a lovely drive.  It’s the same drive that my Chicago friends have to make when they come visit me at the ranch.  Nearly every one of them has commented on it; it isn’t like the drives they’re used to into and out of the city.

As for me, I try to be mindful of it, but as often as not, I don’t really notice the drive as I’m making it.  Today I was driving home around 5:00, and I got stuck at the railroad crossing.  A train had stopped on the track.  Traffic was stacked fifteen cars deep when I pulled up.

I had been daydreaming about getting home in time to make the early evening hot yoga class at my yoga studio in town.  Sweat.  Stretch.  Zone out.  Bliss out.  I was pre-congratulating myself on just how mindful and zen I was about to get.   (Look at me, self-caring the shit out of this evening.)

I was thinking about it as I stopped.

And waited.

Five minutes.  (I can still make it if the train starts going….now…)

Ten minutes.  (Cars start turning around.)

Fifteen minutes.  (If I turn around I won’t stand a chance.)

Seventeen minutes.  (I don’t stand a chance anyway.)

I did a three-point turn and started driving back towards the office, my “preemptive zen” rapidly being replaced by annoyance and mild bitterness.

I took the first right turn available, hoping it wasn’t a dead end, allowing my inner critic to lecture me about missing the yoga class I had been planning to attend.  Suddenly, it wasn’t just an unfortunate circumstance resulting in shifted plans, it was a ruined evening.

(Maybe now would be a good time to mention that I lost a pet yesterday, the third in about a month.  I’ve been out of sorts and anxious for several weeks now, parsing through feelings and emotions that my brain doesn’t really want me to feel.  My stress levels have been running high.)

Then, about a mile down this road I’ve passed a million times but have never driven down, I started to notice.

It was lovely.  Truly lovely.

Cornfields and meadows hugged the sides of the road.  Quiet fields on each side hedged by the ridge line of the river valley.  Wildflowers.  Small houses, some of which have probably stood there nearly a century.   The clouds were rolling in above.  Asphalt rolled by below.

I crossed a creek.  Drove by old barns being reclaimed by the land: red-painted timbers fading gray.  I watched a turkey vulture wobble his wings against a thermal in the distance.

I’ve lived in this area most of my life, but I had never driven down that road.

I didn’t know it was there, eventually looping back around to the state highway, hidden away just a bit.  It’s beautiful in an understated, distinctly Midwestern, way.  Family farms. A creek rushing to the river.  Corn that stretches emerald green into the distance.

My detour lasted maybe ten minutes.

My class was starting by the time I came out the other side, but that didn’t matter quite as much as it had when I turned off the main road.

Sometimes, when you least expect it, the universe gives you the gift of what you need even if it isn’t what you had been looking for.   Even when you vehemently explain to the universe that you know exactly what you need to do to feel connected again–because mindful, zen, yoga dammit!!!—sometimes the universe has the good sense to send you down a little detour instead.

I found a little dose of serenity.  A tiny reminder that there is beauty all around us if we open our eyes once in a while.

Dear ones, never underestimate the power of a little detour and a country road.

Country Roads Take Me Home
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Spring

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.

Unpredictable.

Fickle.

Unruly.

(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.

Sitting in the Sacred

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.

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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. 

 

 

Trees and Sunsets

I am the sort of person who has favorite trees.  I’ve always found trees to be a little bit magical, a piece of the past that roots into the future.  When I was a little girl, one of my favorite trees was the willow tree in our backyard (the namesake of our lane). Now, though I have many trees that I love, one of my absolute favorites is my backyard western pine.

Very few types of evergreen trees are actually native to Illinois.  If you see them here, it’s usually because they were planted, or perhaps their parent tree was planted.  They grow tall and lovely, and can rival the height of the native oaks and maples, but they don’t reach their true potential they way they would if they had rooted in their native soil.

And yet, they are the monoliths of the ridge line.  Apparently the result of depression era planting, there are rows upon rows of western pines scattered across the farm.  They edge the farm road, they frame the back fields, and one particularly lovely and tall evergreen commands the back yard.  I am the sort of person who has favorite trees, and this particular pine is one of my absolute favorite trees on the property.

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I sat in my sun room on Friday, reflecting on a particularly difficult day, starring out at the backyard and my stalwart pine tree in its field of oaks and maples.  It swayed gently in the wind as the sky faded from blue to pink behind it.

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The sunset was extraordinary; I watched the colors slip from one to the next like the tracks on a well loved CD, so quiet in their transition that before you realize one song has ended, you’re listening to a new one.  I feel like God gave us sunsets to remind us that endings can be beautiful.

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And I think maybe God gave us trees to remind us of our own brevity.  Those trees in the backyard have watched over this place for decades.  To their lifetime, I am a footnote. But not even the trees are permanent.  Everything is both stable and changing, all the time, all around us.

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I’m not sure why, but those ideas comforted me that evening.  Endings can be beautiful.  Nothing lasts forever.

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Pink to orange.  Orange to purple.  Purple back to blue before the night settled in.  The moon like an iridescent white pearl against the black, crushed-velvet sky.  By the time the night settled in, I felt much better. Because sometimes, endings can be beautiful. 

And, regardless, the sun is going to rise over my favorite pinetree in the morning. 

 

 

 

Compassion in Tension

I was reading a post from LittleSunDog (one of my favorite wordpress bloggers) about small, sometimes unseen, acts of compassion.  She wrote about saving a butterfly from flying into a bonfire, deciding not to cut down an old tree because there was a family of squirrels living in it…that sort of thing.

And it got me thinking about life out here on the ranch.  We live out here at the intersection of wild and domestic.  The bulk of the property is woodland-with approximately 80 of Eagle Ridge’s 100 acres in forest-and, were we to let it be completely, it would reclaim this dwelling on the top of the hill in just a few years I think.

Living at the intersection of wild and domestic creates a certain tension: we struggle to care for the wildness while at the same time guarding against it.  And it can be very difficult to know where to draw the line.

Continue reading “Compassion in Tension”